Friday, December 23, 2011

Actualistic ontology: a word of clarification

I am blessed to be surrounded by people interested in carrying on vigorous and intelligent conversation regarding the intricacies of contemporary theology. For this, I am truly grateful. But as part of this ongoing conversation, I occasionally encounter misunderstandings of certain theological positions. One of the most misunderstood, even by those who are largely sympathetic, is the current post-Barthian conception of “actualistic ontology” (hereafter AO). I will not here advance my own arguments regarding the validity of this position as an interpretation of Barth. I only wish to clear up a bit of confusion that has cropped up among those who reject ontology tout court as theologically illegitimate. Those who hold such views are one of two camps that believe all ontology to be metaphysics; the other group being those who think theology needs to embrace metaphysics. They are two sides of the same “ontology = metaphysics” coin, and both sides are wrong—but I won’t get into all that now. The criticism is simply that AO, by virtue of speaking about a theological ontology, is an instance of trying to give human beings a kind of epistemological control over God, that is, to secure God as something stable and graspable. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I will keep my clarification of AO very simple. AO does not give unwarranted ontological security; on the contrary, it de-secures our ontology. AO locates the fragility and instability of our knowledge of God—what dialectical theology rightly emphasizes over against orthodox and liberal attempts to make such knowledge secure through some kind of general foundationalism—in the very reality and identity of God. Or, rather, it affirms, in an act of Nachdenken, that God has located such fragility within Godself. AO thus says something quite remarkable and radical: the vulnerability of our epistemic relation to God is not merely a feature of our finitude and sinfulness; it is, in fact, a vulnerability in which God has eternally willed to participate—a vulnerability, in fact, that God has willed to make constitutive of God’s very being. The weakness and riskiness that marks our human situation is one that God has chosen to mark the divine situation. There is no control or stability here. On the contrary, AO radicalizes the instability and maximizes our lack of control by grounding these in the being of God.

There is an Advent sermon embedded in these thoughts, but I’ll let others develop it. I have a dissertation to write.


Bros. Jimenez said...


Thanks for the post. I have been struggling as of late to work through the election/Trinity debate among Barthians and the idea of actualistic ontology seems to be an idea carried to the next level. Is Jungel the one who gets credit for this idea? Also, is Barth's later thought on the humanity of God the context of this ontology?

Considering your post, I wonder if one can argue that this type of ontology is closer to a Deleuzian (Spinozian) form than one based on a Thomism? Or, is there actually an analogy of being here, however, a less stable being than the classical theistic view?

David W. Congdon said...

The term "actualistic ontology" is Bruce McCormack's concept; it refers to his position as developed in that trinity/election debate. It certainly is indebted to Jüngel, and I suppose you could retroactively apply it to him. The later Barth is crucial, yes, for the way he identifies God's being with the historical event of Jesus Christ.

As for what kind of ontology this is, it's Hegelian. So neither of the two you mention. And no, definitely no analogy of being, though McCormack would allow for a redefinition of that term to refer to the ontological character of Barth's mature analogy of faith.

Bros. Jimenez said...

I am totally for the "Hegelian" reading of Barth but it seems like it has not caught on among theologians. For instance, I think the Hegelian reading helps make Barth much more conversational with figures like Zizek and others (or social-political concerns) in the continental tradition while the "radical transcendence" reading makes him somewhat trapped in a purely theological tradition or as an updated Kierkegaard (especially among evangelicals who seem to be suspicious of anything Hegelian).

David W. Congdon said...

The "Hegelian" reading of Barth is the majority reading of Barth, at least among the best scholars in the field. However, I don't think I mean "Hegelian" the way you mean "Hegelian," if you think "Hegelian" is in conflict with "radical transcendence." A truly radical transcendence coincides with immanence, unless you buy into the Deleuzian school of ontology (which I wholly reject). Kierkegaard and Hegel need not be placed in contradistinction to each other, just as Bultmann and Barth need not be opposed to each other.

Bros. Jimenez said...

Thanks for the clarification and I agree about the Hegelian reading as the best. I'm just thinking about the English historiography of Barth (neo-orthodox) that focuses on Romans II and often does not include the immanence, especially via McCormack/Jungel. I guess one can say that the radical transcendence along with the immanence illustrates movement and intention, which one can't get with a Deleuzian ontology. But does Barth differ from Hegel in that Barth's view of God's immanence is one where God's being-act is a self-determination out of God's freedom as a transcendent God whereas this is a necessary move for Hegel (or is this a stereotype of Hegel?)?

David W. Congdon said...

"I'm just thinking about the English historiography of Barth (neo-orthodox) that focuses on Romans II and often does not include the immanence, especially via McCormack/Jungel."

What are you trying to say here? Are you saying that the McCormack/Jüngel line of interpretation does not include immanence and focuses on Romans II? If so, that couldn't be more wrong. Or are you saying that English historiography focuses on Romans II and ignores the McCormack/Jüngel line? Because that wouldn't be correct either.

But does Barth differ from Hegel in that Barth's view of God's immanence is one where God's being-act is a self-determination out of God's freedom as a transcendent God whereas this is a necessary move for Hegel (or is this a stereotype of Hegel?)?

This is a stereotype of Hegel.

Bros. Jimenez said...

First, thanks for bearing with my questions.

Second, with regards to the English historiography, I am trying to understand (outside of Tillich's criticism of Barth being neo-orthodox) where commentators tend to emphasize only his radical transcendence and return to orthodoxy while not giving due attention to Barth's later historical turn. In short, reading Jungel and McCormack helped me to see that Barth had both the transcendent and immanent in tension.

I say this because when I mention to people I am studying Barth I often get the response that "he isn't interested in the world" or that "he isn't practical enough because of his over-emphasis on transcendence" (I get this a lot from people studying either Pannenberg or Moltmann). I believe that this is a caricature but I am just trying to figure out where it came from. I think the actualistic ontology is a good way to respond to this caricature.

David W. Congdon said...

Ah, I see. Those people simply have never read Barth.

Bros. Jimenez said... fact, most will say that they have not looked into Barth too deeply (just textbook stuff I guess)...

Darren said...

David, thanks for the helpful post. Bros. Jimenez, thanks for sparking an interesting discussion so far.

I only want to add one contextual comment / pot-shot: I've come to speculate that a great deal of bad Barth scholarship that was done in the middle decades of the last century is based in large part on the 20-year gap between the publication of CD I/1 (1936) and I/2 (1956) in English translation. These attempts to gain a big-picture sense of the whole of Barth's theology rely heavily on Romans II and CD I/1 (plus a smattering of essays), demonstrating a failure to pick up the German and stay current with the KD during its initial publication span.

Remarkably, these readings continue to hold sway today in some quarters, and can be easy to spot because of the Romans II and CD I/1 fingerprints all over them, and a decisive neglect or misunderstanding of anything in volume IV.