Chapter 1: An Ontological Re-Imagination

On Not Giving Up Real Talk

Warning: questioning traditional metaphysical understandings of being may trigger bouts of anxiety. For some, the rejection of metaphysical constructions of God eliminates any solid ground for drawing ethical conclusions or moving forward in life with a moral sensibility. The dependence of traditional metaphysics in constructing ontological frameworks has framed some modern perspectives so tightly that it can be hard to imagine making any kind of claim to knowing outside of its logic. My own story is full of shock and awe at my attempts to explain my engagement and identity with Christianity without affirmations of classical Christian doctrines like Jesus is God and he literally rose from the dead. If these assertions that depend on appeals to supernature are not true, then how can my Christianity be true or authentic or valid? But are classical metaphysical assumptions the only options for finding one’s moral and ethical direction, for making claims, for identifying as Christian? Is the “logic of the One” the only framework through which to account for what is and should be happening in the world?[1] Is embracing the way of Jesus today, being a Christian in the 21st century, dependent upon a transcendent God, who is the ultimate source of universally settled truth? But if these ontological constructions prove shaky, condemned by their instability, is the whole thing a farce, a big joke? If God is dead, does Jesus have to be?

I do not think so. Re-imagining ontology beyond the limitations and constrictions of traditional metaphysics unfolds into the possibilities of a god-talk after God, a theological discussion not entangled by the traps of transcendent assumptions but a theological conversation nonetheless. Moreover, the conversation of the theological stripped of its metaphysical, supernatural arsenal facilitates a richer, thicker, more genuine, and meaning-full way of being Christian in the world today as well as impacting what it means for the world today for someone to be such a Christian.

However, discussions of what is real do not seem to be going away, even in a postmodern context that criticizes philosophical constructions of being and reality dependent on supernatural and transcendent ontological sources. Ontological considerations, those matters of being and reality, continue to envelope the human quest no matter how hard someone runs from them or edits them from the narrative. Moving toward a re-imagination of ontological possibility does not fully clear the air of those particulates that reflect the ontological assumptions of days gone by. Nor should it. An absolute dismissal and rejection of those uncanny discussions of reality looks a lot like someone sawing off the very branch they are sitting on.

So why is it necessary to engage a fresh imagination of ontology? This question honors the sustained postmodern critiques of history’s dominant ontological assumptions. In the dominant Western philosophical projects to identify the real, a universal ontological narrative presumed to tell the whole world’s story although it did not possess the capacity to do so. The more applied assumptions of ontology derived from the philosophical identification of “God as the ultimate being and the cause of all beings”[2] the more this system strained to hold the weight of its implications. A closer look reveals that it was an ontological system that favored a mere few. It grew into a totalizing mechanism by which those in power could leverage control by ordering life through its absolutizing, onto-theological mechanisms. Eventually, this totalizing and metaphysical construction as One set over and against the many was exposed as an exclusive archive of “thinly masked Eurocentric and patriarchal views of reality.”[3] Ontology was commoditized for funding a philosophical and theological project of power. Over time and as voices disenfranchised by its narrow favoritism grew louder, it decreased in value as a resource for an accounting of the multiplicities of being. There was more to the story than the story was letting on.

However, I am not willing to throw out god-talk or the exploration of a divine dimension (though I am not sure what that means) when looking at what is going on in the world.  It seems to me that god-talk, talking through and exploring one’s perceptions and ideas about what could be god in the world, is not going away.[4] But this god-talk, the exploration and theorizing of what happens beyond the visible, comes after (or without) the God understood within the logic of the One. Also, I admit to operating on the assumptions provided by those post-modern critiques that deconstruct and dismiss the idea of a big “G” God, “Who” is the foundation and source of being and absolute truth.[5] As Schneider says, “That dismissal is relatively easy. But it is not possible to engage theology with any seriousness and also avoid making any claims or gestures toward some concept of what is ‘real.’”[6] In later sections I will give reasons for retaining a commitment to the theological understood beyond and detached from the assumptions of the narrowing discourse of God-talk. For now, I want to focus on breaking open the ontological space for seeing beyond that discourse.

A strong dependence on the logic of the One causes some to contend that without an absolute metaphysical Being or Truth (a big “G” God) there can be no way to establish any moral, ethical, or truth claims since there is nothing Really Real to check those claims against. In other words, no God means no legitimate claim for modeling life after the way Jesus—not a Jesus who is viable for shaping any sort of human meaning-making. The story of Jesus rests on the assumptions undergirding the story of big “G” God. These contentions can manifest into some outrageously insensitive claims however. For instance, anti-Darwinian and creationist Binford Pyle once asserted in a debate with Reg Saner that without moral absolutes, “There would be no reason why I shouldn’t wrap an airplane around myself and fly into a building.”[7] In other words, who is to say I am right or wrong about anything if there is not Some-Thing beyond us, outside us, that has already established these distinctions and orders human life with the Truth that cuts across all human diversity and experience? How can I say something or someone else is right or wrong if there is no objective good or objective bad somewhere out there to which I can appeal to account for my claims?

These questions protest the anxieties and changes wrought by those confronted with life and ontological imagination after God. They are the desperate closing arguments of the Supernatural One’s defense attorneys before a jury of deconstructionists who have already made up their minds. Will the charges of impersonating an objective Truth brought against this God be dropped? I think not. So is it pointless to make a claim? Is humanity left to flounder in a sea of relativism, where nothing can be right or wrong, nothing good or bad? Is it time to leave Jesus behind, in the wreckage of misconstrued social and religious conditioning where he belongs? I say these are the wrong questions. I suggest that an either/or approach to this ontological tension is wrongheaded and examining some creative models of theorizing ontology will open to “possibilities for being that disobey the logic of the One.”[8] I contend that god-talk is an appropriate way of addressing encounters with ontological questions and human be-ing while distinguishing itself as a viable alternative discourse that emerges through a critical suspicion of a totalizing narrative of God-talk.[9]

 

 Ontology and a Logic of Multiplicity

I should only believe in a Godthat would know how to dance. – Friedrich Nietzsche[10]

I begin with Laurel C. Schneider’s imagining of ontology through a “logic of multiplicity” because it disrupts and destabilizes God-talk in a way that invites imaginative possibilities of god-talk after God. Her ontological reconsiderations push beyond, or add an “and” to, thinking from within the logic of the One without avoiding “gestures of oneness,” for she argues that one can never “fully escape the risks of totalization” or get away from “some sort of being-with oneness.”[11] As already noted, to make such a move to push out, do away with, to annihilate the One is to operate from within its logic. She makes an important distinction: “there is a real difference between the logic of the One that ever hides the totalizing drive of ontology and a logic of multiplicity that ever seeks to expose it.”[12] It is still ontology. Only it is ontology that is allowed to expand, to think beyond, to imagine afresh, and is shaped by the metaphors of fluidity and porosity, and always cautious of the temptation to stake claims into what appears like the ground of Being.

What Schneider attempts to convey in the logic of multiplicity is not easily traversed and takes place beyond the comfort of sure footing. It can seem like word games, a challenging match of syntactical twister that bends one’s thoughts away from the conversation of relativism. Though I think in naming these difficulties an creative space opens for a fresh understanding of real that is beyond and ever expanding and reconfiguring itself. In her book, Beyond Monotheism, Schneider unpacks in great detail ontology from a logic of multiplicity, recommending it not as a settled position, but as a theoretical approach of active flexibility, “leaning into or toward a more full mindfulness of divine presence/s in our midst.”[13] She continues: “These are the kind of ontological notions that recognize the fertile incompleteness in theological reflection, that find rich beginnings-again in old biblical texts, that never tire of the ancient stories, tragic and comic, of seekers after divinity.”[14]

After God, a person can interpret experiences of disruption as a way of constituting a re-imagination for ontology. This ontology interrogates the testimony of the transcendent God of changelessness and immutability, theorizing what-could-be-divine among an unending human web of interdependence, intersection, and becoming. The logic of multiplicity takes work, demands an exhausting mental attentiveness of being someone beginning all the time. It presents a risk of trying to explain what cannot be explained. This disruptive mode of thought breaks open the logic of the One enough to allow the possibilities of “perhaps” and “and” to seep in and saturate it with re-imaginative energy. Overwhelming and inundating, the logic of multiplicity is never settled, constantly engaging “a hybrid of bodies in motion, of localities shifting.”[15]

I can anticipate the questions. If God-talk is not to be trusted as a sturdy, changeless, always-reliable resource for navigating ontological questions, then why faith? Why Jesus? If things are constantly becoming then where is the solid, stable ground in which I can stake a claim or map my faith? In an effort to get at answering these questions, I have attempted a parable of sorts. Remember, I have not, nor has Schneider, given up on ontology due to the realization that it seems impossible to escape thinking and living within a basic assumption of reality. But I certainly do not want to leave that basic assumption of reality imprisoned within the logic of the One. Thus I am plodding through the possibilities of god-talk after God. And the following semi-theo-poetical textual excursion gets at my reasons for thinking so.[16]

 

Ontology reimagined embraces as real the chaotic multiplicities transpiring among every human, every thing, every particle of existence, every phenomenon, every—sigh, moment, memory, drop of saliva, bead of sweat, cry of pain, micro-aggression, flash of flesh, winked eye, oozing scab; all bound together in a dance(s) of unrest, of becoming and becoming again, passing in and out but never taking over or absorbing or being absorbed, constantly refiguring and refigured. To the arrhythmic pulses of musical energy, the expanding self unfolds again and again into an ontological folding in and in, always ever someone new, someone responsible to someone else, someone changed and shape-shifted by someone else’s touch, gaze, story, history, memory, tears, protests. Now imagine. Someone, Some Thing abruptly stops the m(us)ic and brings the dance(s) to a paralyzing halt, freeze-framing a Moment of the way things should stay…to elevate what this One deems a particularly attractive Snapshot of the dance(s) from out of the dance(s) itself and into a stilled Scene at which to stare and compare everything, the rest of the ones, the many, against. It is in envisioning such an arresting and circumscriptive action that a reimagined ontology senses a haunting silence, a space of resource for ethical reflection, a countermelody of memory and hope playing together. These hopes, memories, visions sound notes against a power move, the seizing of a Moment, extracting a changeless, isolated Preference, a reified Form from the chaos of multiplicities that are always already reshaping and beginning again, elevating a static Image to sit in judgment and constrict the intersecting and unfolding that brought about its very existence. Now, a rhythm of injustices keeps time frustrating those dance(s) not favored, not privileged by the violent capture of a transcendent Moment that claims to encompass the full and expected, changeless, eternal expressions of the dance(s). The totalizing and overpowering action stops the music, ends the dance(s), dance(s) which energize life and promote a world where everyone, everything participates, belongs, dances. But now, among the lingering notes played on a memory, the ecstasy of dance(s) paused echoes the haunted notes of nothing being played, the sound of dance(s) overcome by the sound of the Dance.    

Ontology of the Other

 “Life is always open to what happens…A future coming not measured by the transcendence of death but by the call to birth of the self and the other. –Luce Irigaray[17]

Allowing Schneider’s logic of multiplicity to loom in the background, I turn to Grace Jantzen’s reading of Emmanuel Levinas as another resource for a re-imagined ontology that creates space for god-talk after God. Philosophizing in the shadow of Nazi dominance and downwind of the stench of Auschwitz, Levinas has little patience for those who act in response to some higher moral law that proceeds from an objective God establishing the basis of being—a philosophical system he terms “onto-theological.”[18] Levinas saw in this philosophical system an inherent violence (a symbolic of domination), which naturally gave rise to manifestations of disaster and oppression.[19] Levinas wanted nothing to do with such a philosophical system and theorized a completely different approach that claims “the ethical takes its rise from relationship to another person.”[20]

Distilling Levinas’ thought, Edith Wyschogrod states, “Ontological language acquires its meaning from a sociality that is understood in terms of proximity, of the one who is near and whose approach does not diminish her or his alterity and that, in turn, arouses an awareness of the Saying in the said.”[21] Levinas offers a way of understanding ontology that emerges in the encounter of another person and is disassociated from an onto-theological concept that prioritizes the assumptions founded by God. In other words, the real arises within the pull of responsibility on the one who encounters the other and not within the pull of an absolute responsibility anchored to God.[22] Jantzen quotes Levinas saying, “I do not want to define anything through God because it is the human that I know. It is God that I can define through human relations and not the inverse. The notion of God—God knows, I’m not opposed to it! But when I have something to say about God, it is always beginning from human relations.”[23] It is in this encounter of the human other that the ontological and the possibility of god-talk after God emerges.

Jantzen sees these possibilities as well and appropriates Levinas’s thought for the proposal of a feminist ethic. She appreciates that he prioritizes the ethic of human encounter above the misguided assumptions of a transcendent ontological resource and finds in this thinking room to reflect ethically. She argues, “his insistence on desire and justice rather than beliefs as the basis of religion is congenial to the development of a feminist religious symbolic.”[24] Ontology still contextualizes Jantzen’s theologizing of a fresh symbolic of “natality and flourishing;”[25] however, this ontology comes after and independent of God.

Jantzen’s feminist reading of Levinas is possible through her perceptive use of the space of a re-imagined ontology in Levinas’s philosophical constructions. Jantzen is not fond of the onto-theological foundations of thinking, which Levinas also rejects. This onto-theological system favors the hyper-masculine values of domination, culling the feminine voice from consideration. Levinas’s ontology of the other opens up philosophical space in which feminist theologians like Jantzen can craft claims outside of an ontological construction that invalidates their voices. Instead of ethics being bound to a transcendent source, a fecund ethical possibility forms in the spaces forged by unique human encounters, in the disruptive and transformative moments erupting in the gaps of face-to-face experiences. She explains, “Levinas’s thinking valuably opens the gap for a feminist religious symbolic which is neither reductionist nor fixated on an onto-theological realism centered in the ‘god called God.’”[26] Jantzen’s move to appropriate Levinas’s ontology of the other illustrates the possibilities for god-talk after God within a reimagined ontological framework.

Jantzen and Levinas cannot tolerate a view of reality too small for the overflow of narratives pouring from their ontology of the other. Posing as a comprehensive story of reality, the onto-theological narrative forces the people written out of its telling of reality to imagine new language and ways to write themselves into the story. These people do not nihilistically affirm the death of reality; instead, they refuse to be written out of existence, their story has a face. By re-imagining an ontology that grants them access to the open-ended possibilities of god-talk after God, they step into spaces between the lines or along the margins to write their voices into the world’s drama. They step in to be seen. By doing so, they call to awareness those people who cannot see them because they have put on their onto-theological-colored glasses. And gradually, as people excluded by the onto-theological plot begin telling their stories and experiences, stepping into the spaces of the seen, the world’s story begins to change and the onto-theological narrative calls for some heavy editing and rearranging.

Toward a Hope Beyond Hope

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come. –Martin Luther King, Jr.[27]

Re-imagining ontology attends to the disruption of static thinking in regards to matters of reality. It references the real beyond metaphysical assumptions. It names a way of tracing god-talk after God to claim a Christian identity, which we will explore further in the final chapter of this thesis. In the philosophical and theological modes of thought explored above, I discovered two ways to re-imagine ontology unfettered from the logic of the One. First, a totalizing assumption of reality seeking to explain the whole of life under the affirmation of a meta-story crumbles under the weight of realities too big for it. Second, ontological space for promoting the existence of every human open and expands in the nexus of interdependent relationships and encounters with other people and is foreclosed by the logic of the One. It is here that I want to draw some conclusions about the nature of the theological discourse I am pursuing. This god-talk, then, is not some changeless system of thought framing an eternal accounting of what is going on; rather, god-talk is a way of investigating and theorizing the calls of hope that inspire response, seeing and sharing the dreams of what may come, longing for the not-yet, tracing the possibilities unleashed by a fresh ontological imagination, which find passage among the fresh perspectives of ontology re-imagined.

The first way of re-imagination follows Schneider’s logic of multiplicity. This re-imagining can be described as a wild, chaotic, and always becoming mode of thought, which begs one come into a way of thinking about reality that does not favor the security of making sense. This way of ontology asks us to imagine alongside the poets, storytellers, musicians, artists, and comedians—to risk a reality that is not Reality. But it does not ask us to give up the persistence of ontological questioning and the continuity afforded by living into this historic quest. The call of this ontological re-imagining is to recognize the fluidity and surprise of reality—to open to multiplicities of being, to adjust to new epistemological resources. One overarching story that champions a single narrative of being or a theory of everything is not big enough to contain what it implies. “Multiplicity,” Schneider says “is limitation and possibility co-constitued, not opposed. It is creativity made possible by disability. It is shape-shifting, abundance, finitude, tehom, and story.”[28] If we can begin to think this way, which admittedly is rather difficult, then we can begin to see that attempts at reducing this multiplicity of being in the world need challenged. Our claims can cultivate the flourishing of multiplicity and resist its reduction. Such claims can and should embrace the ontological surprises that come to light during the cross-examination of the ontological assumptions of God-talk.

What does the second ontological re-imagining look like? I argue that it looks similar to Jantzen’s feminist reading of Levinas, which capitalizes on the energy of an ethic produced in an encounter. She makes a claim on the ontology of the other developed in the philosophical thinking of Levinas. This claim suggests a new way of imagining the world and being in the world that disrupts the dominating western symbolic that perpetuates the hegemonic systems of Euro-centrism and misogyny. Levinas’s ontology of the other, as figured by Jantzen, fosters “a new religious symbolic focused on natality and flourishing rather than on death, a symbolic which will lovingly enable natals, women and men, to become subjects, and the earth on which we live to bloom, to be ‘faithful to the process of the divine which passes through’ us and through the earth itself.”[29] It is within the flow of this ontological stream of creativity, face to face with someone else, that one can re-imagine an always ever-expanding ontological resource for thinking through human belonging in the world.

In this re-imagining of ontology, I  am trying to get at that which is astir in conversations of God-talk, that persistence harbored in the name of God. It has not come up much in the thesis thus far. There have been nods to it here. Winks at it there. But is this not how it should be? Indeed, what coalesces with each of these ontological re-imaginings is a theological “perhaps” that fuels the creative imaginings of ontology in the first place. The theological, the god-talk after God, ponders the discourse of those experiences and nudges, whatever they are, that alert an interest in the way we share the space we occupy together. It is the view of a horizon of possibility, a beginning taking shape within the impossible, the urgency of the unseen. It is the call of an open-ended future, which resists the stale idolatry of the logic of the One that offers the future as a product already described. It is the call of flourishing that is imagined in an encounter with another person and the sense of weight felt as the web of human interdependence tugs and pulls at us. It is a poignant and disruptive sensitivity to the earth’s vulnerabilities. It is what stirs beneath the dreams of Martin Luther King, Jr., what is behind the haunting force of a novel like Beloved, and that which resonates within the forsaken sobs of Mark’s Jesus. In light of these ontological re-imaginations, god-talk is not something a person grasps and takes hold of; god-talk is the conversation regarding what it might be that grasps and takes hold of a person and thrusts them into a restless journey of hope against hope. And in the grip of this insistence, we journey to those spaces beyond God delighted to find the conversation still going.

[1] The “logic of the One” is Laurel C. Schneider’s way of naming the totalizing and negative consequences of an absolute, metaphysically grounded monotheism in the world. It is a way of referring to the story of God as the whole story. See Laurel C. Schneider, Beyond Monotheism: A Theology of Multiplicity (New York: Routledge, 2008), ix-14.

[2] Grace M. Jantzen, Becoming Divine: Towards A Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), 223.

[3] Schneider, Beyond Monotheism,132.

[4] Following Peter Rollins, I prefer to understand theologizing as not necessarily “speaking of God but only ever speaking about our understanding of God.” Peter Rollins, How (Not) To Speak Of God (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006), 32.

[5] Throughout this thesis, I use capitalization to signal a totalizing metaphysics and to reference ontology understood only in the sense of absolute truth, the logic of the One.

[6] Schneider, Beyond Monotheism,133.

[7] Reg Saner, “My Fall Into Knowledge,” in The Norton Reader, 13th ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), 1090.

[8] Schneider, Beyond Monotheism, 137.

[9] Mark L. Taylor in The Theological and the Political distinguishes between the theological and guild Theology as an academic discipline (9-12); Anthony Pinn in The End of God-Talk theorizes a nontheistic humanist theology in which the distinction I am naming becomes apparent throughout his work. I have used these insights to frame the way I refer to the distinction, which will be clarified further in the next sections.

[10] Friedrich Nietzche, translated by Thomas Common, Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, (Amazon Digital Services, Inc) Kindle Electronic Edition, Chapter VII, Location 915-924.

[11] Schneider, Beyond Monotheism, 138-139.

[12] Schneider, Beyond Monotheism, 138. She also makes an important point “that ‘multiplicity’ is not the same as ‘the many.’ It does not refer to a pile of many separable units, many ‘ones,’ and so it is not opposed to the One or to ones.” Naming this is a way of not falling into using the logic of the One to assert the logic of multiplicity, which emerges as a constant temptation.

[13] Schneider, Beyond Monotheism, 151 (emphasis hers).

[14] Schneider, Beyond Monotheism, 152.

[15] Schneider, Beyond Monotheism, 151.

[16] I did not bother with proper sentence structure for the paragraph ending this section. I wanted the flow and structure to illustrate the content as best it could. But it is not fully poetic or theological or linear or logical. And perhaps that is the point. And perhaps I have missed the point. It is also not footnoted since I wrote it out of the abundance of my time spent with Schneider’s text, but there is no doubt her language, ideas, concepts, and words are at work here. I capitalize certain words to signify a relation to the force of God-talk.

[17] Jantzen, Becoming Divine, 227.

[18] Jantzen, Becoming Divine, 233.

[19] Jantzen, Becoming Divine, 234.

[20] Jantzen, Becoming Divine, 234.

[21] Edith Wyschogrod, Emmanuel Levinas: The Problem of Ethical Metaphysics (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), xx.

[22] Levinas did not typically say “other person.”

[23] Jantzen, Becoming Divine, 236.

[24] Jantzen, Becoming Divine, 252.

[25] Jantzen, Becoming Divine, 254.

[26] Jantzen, Becoming Divine, 253.

[27] Martin Luther King, Jr, “Letter From Birmingham City Jail,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Wrtiings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed, James Melvin Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 297.

[28] Schneider, Beyond Monotheism, 137 (emphasis hers).

[29] Jantzen, Becoming Divine, 254.

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