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.