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Ontology, Difference, and Narrative

In some recent discussions, both in the blogosphere and in my church, the question of essentialism and its key problems for Chrisian theology have recently been brought to the forefront of my thoughts. Now, just to be clear, when I refer to essentialism, I’m referring of the philosophical idea that there is a set of characteristics, all of which any entity of a specific kind cannot fail to have. Thus, to be human, I must posses ______, which constitutes me as human. This characteristic is the “essence” of what it means to be human. To be a human one must posses this “essence”.

Such an ontology, must be rejected for a number of reasons, one of which I want to take a look at here. A key problem with essentialism is that it is ‘essentially’ violent. Essentialism is violent precisely because it determines our ontological status as something that we posses in and of ourselves. If reason, for example makes me human (as has often been thought in Christian theology), then my possession of reason must be safeguarded at all costs in order for me to retain my personhood. On such an essentialist framework, no matter what the characteristic is asserted to be, my ontological status is something that I posses, and therefore can be dis-possessed of. Therefore anything that comes to me from outside myself, that is different is a threat. Who I am as a being is something that comes from within myself. Anything that comes from outside can only diminish or worse, destroy who I am.

An essentialist ontology ultimately wants to deny any ontological weight to difference. Within an essentialist framework, difference can only be violent, since my be-ing is self-enclosed because my ontological status exists by virtue of a given characteristic that I possess in and of myself. Thus, for an essentialist, it seems that difference would be the ultimate foe, to be feared and resisted. Despite its long pedigree in Christian theology, we have to call this whole ontological framework radically into question precisely on Chalcedonian grounds.

While there are ways in which the definition of Chalcedon can be read as affirming sameness against difference within the framework of essentialism, it also seems to radically undermine such an ontology because difference is presupposed throughout, i.e. Christ absolutely both divine and human. Thus, on a Chalcedonian framework all our knowledge of God is given precisely through the sheer difference of Christ from us, in that he is not merely “same” (human), but irreducibly “other” (divine). What the incarnation says is that essentialism is false because in Christ we see that sameness and difference coexist in perfect, noncompetitive harmony, and only in its light do we have knowledge of God. An incarnational ontology demands that we view difference, not as violent, but precisely as the area in which noncompetitive, salvific communion is established between humanity and God in Christ. What we are confronted with here is a gospel-ontology, a story of being that takes its shape fundamentally from the narrative of Christ. For a Christian, our story of being must be nothing other than the story of the death and resurrection of Christ. Soteriology is ontology.

In contrast to a gospel-ontology, an essentialist ontology corresponds to a theology of creation, particularly a doctrine of creation in which creation is seen as a cosmos. For the essentialist, what exists is fundamentally a “thing” which is what it is by virtue of its internal essence, which is ‘essentially’ timeless and universal. However, in the biblical understanding of creation, what the Triune God creates is not a cosmos, but rather a history. If creation were a cosmos constructed of a bunch of self-defined (and therefore self-enclosed) essences, communion would be impossible. All things would remain self-enclosed, self-defined objects that could never experience communion as something other than the violent intrusion of alien forces upon their being. But because creation is a history, namely the history of Jesus, communion is not only possible, it is actualized in the concrete history of Jesus’ cross and resurrection. If creation is a history, then the only way to formulate a gospel-ontology is to narrate the story of Jesus. In a history, what exists is not a given, rather what exists is what it is in virtue of what it is dynamically becoming in relation with the Future. In a history persons shape and form one another as they are drawn toward the End if the story, the dramatic denouement. And if history is ultimately understood correctly as the history of Jesus we can say that in history, persons find their identity, their dramatic coherence in the communion between the Triune God and the world that happens in the history of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Thus, in contrast to essentialism, we have our being, not because we possess some essence, but because we are included as characters in the dramatic history of Jesus Christ. For Christians, the narrative of Christ is our ontology. Our being exists ekstatically – outside ourselves — precisely in Christ’s concrete history. In Christ, ontology and history are not just united, they are one and the same thing, in perfect nonviolent, noncompetitive harmony. Our be-ing takes place insofar as the history of Christ incorporates us into its movement, that is into the story of Christ’s love which is just another way of saying ‘death and resurrection’. Insofar as we are drawn by the Spirit to participate in the history of Jesus, we come to be. We come to be precisely as participants in the Christ-history, which is the ultimate story of being, createdness, and salvation. The end of that history, the end of our story of being is thus, not violence or fear, but peace, feasting and joy. The other, the different, which to an essentialist could only be a source of fear and danger, is in the gospel-ontology, pure gift. “Perfect love casts out all fear.” Thus, in a gospel-ontology, we are driven to say the following when we tell our story of being: “To be is to be a part of the story of the love of God, which is identical with Jesus’ death and resurrection.”


  1. WTM wrote:


    Thanks for this post. I agree with a lot of what you have to say here. But, I think that you are a little too uncharitable to essentialism. You write:

    “An essentialist ontology ultimately wants to deny any ontological weight to difference. Within an essentialist framework, difference can only be violent, since my be-ing is self-enclosed because my ontological status exists by virtue of a given characteristic that I possess in and of myself.”

    The only way that this could be true is with an overly developed essentialism. By this I mean that, if we start defining the ‘essence’ of things as not-other things, then you could be right. But it all hinges on the manner of definition. Of course, human ‘being’ or ‘essence’ is both like and unlike dog ‘being’ or ‘essence’. Does this necessarily mean that our conceptions do violence to dogs?

    Now, it seems to me that this whole thing about actualized ontology in Christian theology has to do with how we relate act and being. A lot of people who broadly follow Barthian lights are tending to priviledge act over being such that it is act which constitutes being. But, this makes no sense to me for two reasons:

    (1) If ‘act’ means a volitional activity (I ‘act’ in some sense, as a verb), then the ‘thing’ that ‘acts’ must exist prior to the act.

    (2) If ‘act’ means that extension in time is that which fundamentaly controls our existence, then there must be some ‘thing’ that exists in time.

    In each case, you cannot get act ahead of being. At best, you get act and being in a relation of mutual dependence (position #2 above). I’m happy with this – act and being are mutually basic, as far as I’m concerned, such that our being is defined and becomes a certain kind of that class of things we already belong to on the basis of our activity.

    Now, let’s apply this to God. God must exist in order to elect. In God’s electing, God determines how God will relate with humanity, that is, God decides what kind of ‘god’ the God will be. This decision of election does not bring God into existence, but it does establish God as the kind of God whom we know in Jesus Christ. That is, God decides to be God pro nobis – a certain form of God.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    Monday, April 2, 2007 at 6:47 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I’m with you on the act and being question. I don’t think it’s coherent to make act prior to being. Rather, in God they exist in some sort of mutual simultenaeity (s.p.?).

    Now, as to your question, perhaps I am a bit hard on essentialism, but I think what I’m critiquing is the trajectory I see inherent within it, and I think that’s a legitimate critique. Conceptually speaking, if my identity is defined by something internal to myself, anything external cannot enhance who I am, it can only compete with it. If “who I am” is determined by what I am internally, the only thing that can happen to me when something intrudes upon me from outside myself is diminishment or death –and anything outside myself is potentially a source for that. That’s what I mean when I say it is inherntly violent.

    Now, to be sure the essentialist could say that there are things outside of oneself that are not a threat to who I am. A dog may not inherently violate who I am as a human. But, it always has the potential to do so and is a threat. If a dog jumps on me and knocks me in front of a car and I become mentally disabled, and no longer possess reason (let’s say), then I have lost my humanity.

    The point is the fundamental orientation of essentialism. Even if everything isn’t necessarily violent for the essentialist, if my being is something that I possess, violence is unavoidable, because I must protect that possession in order to continue to be.

    Monday, April 2, 2007 at 7:20 pm | Permalink
  3. Shane wrote:

    “Within an essentialist framework, difference can only be violent, since my be-ing is self-enclosed because my ontological status exists by virtue of a given characteristic that I possess in and of myself. Thus, for an essentialist, it seems that difference would be the ultimate foe, to be feared and resisted.”

    Suppose that there exist such a thing as “2″, “+”, “=” and “4″. Suppose now that the nazis, being ontotheologians of violence all, use the logical definition “2+2=4″ to perpetuate the holocaust.

    I think this would be sufficient grounds for our assuming, with Derrida, Levinas and others, that the ultimate task of mathematical logicians is to recover the voice of The Other, L’autre. Not to suppress by the violence of phallo-phono-mathematico-logic the free play of numerical différance. Mathematics ought not aimed at the achievement of fascist absolute claims to Truth, but rather at the emancipation of numbers. Let the numbers join together in solidarity against the aggression of the mathematical logicians who wish to fix them within the constraints of rigid “identities”, “essences” and the other trappings of transcendent Platonism!

    Monday, April 2, 2007 at 7:30 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Well, I guess that means you disagree, Shane. At least your disagreements are always wonderful rhetorical displays. Bravo!

    Monday, April 2, 2007 at 7:44 pm | Permalink
  5. Shane wrote:

    sorry to be a dick halden. I get carried away with myself sometimes.

    here’s a link though to some sober thoughts on the topic that express my actual opinion.

    Monday, April 2, 2007 at 8:19 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    No apologies necessary, I found the prose awesome! i.e. I wasn’t making a snide throwaway comment about the rhetorical brilliance. And I do the same, myself at time.

    Thanks for the link.

    Monday, April 2, 2007 at 8:26 pm | Permalink
  7. Greg wrote:

    This is a long and full post. Thanks.

    I just have a couple of quick thoughts. Soteriology is ontology? Maybe the issue here is rather what kind of ontology – could there be a salvific ontology and a creational ontology? Instead of outright contrast – relation and distinction may be a better configuration as it seems to explain more of the world and humaness.

    This type of configuration may also be better than the either/or concerning God creating not a cosmos, but a history. Not convinced, by the not/but and see the biblical story likely to be affirming a both/and.

    In the wider discussion of being human, Jesus leads the way. From a philosophical angle, Ricoeur may be helpful with his notion of oneself as another.

    True, the love of God is identical with Jesus’ death and resurrection. It would never be less than this, but always a whole lot more.

    Wednesday, April 4, 2007 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Thanks, for the feedback, Greg. Just a couple points in response:

    1) On Soteriology as Ontology. My point here is that existence in sin, is ‘existence-in-nonexistence’, so to speak. If we take sin as privation, which I think we should, we understand being in sin to be descending into nothingness (Barth). Sin means the perversion and loss of authentic creaturely being. Thus, to “be” must be brought about by God’s act of grace in Christ. That’s what I mean when I say that soteriology is ontology. It’s saying that in Christ we are created as authentically new beings. Now, to be sure there is some measure of continuity between ourselves as created and as redeemed, but I think we need to hold that dialectically in tension. And as far as ontology goes, I want, at least in this context to say that to be means to be a new creature in Christ.

    2) On cosmos vs. history. The reason I set up that dichotomy is because he idea of creation as a cosmos is a very particular one and it corresponds to a substance ontology. The idea is that what is is ultimately a material thing that has integrity in itself, only subsequently having other things like activity, history, becoming, etc. In other words, if creation is a cosmos in the traditional conception, it has its integrity and intelligibility because of its past origin. If, however creation is a history, it has its integrity and intelligibility in the future. This I think is the key point, and I think it comes from the Bible and the church fathers (esp. Irenaeus). God creates the world to perfect the world eschatologically. The world has its being by virtue of the future that God has for it and draws it towards through Christ and the Spirit.

    If we are going to talk about creation as both a cosmos and a history, I can only say yes to that if we mean something like the following: What God creates is the drama eschatologically perfecting and communing with that which is not God. The “world” the stuff of creation that exists around us like trees, stars, rocks and dolphins are the props and settings, the location and context in which this drama takes place.

    Wednesday, April 4, 2007 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  9. Ben wrote:

    Conceptually speaking, if my identity is defined by something internal to myself, anything external cannot enhance who I am, it can only compete with it.

    Well, unless the External is what(Who) provides the gift of internality (true freedom’s ante-chamber) and the self of “myself” in the first place.

    Also, in thinking of esse, I have never been lead to think of reason, or intellect, or any-thing else as the esse of humans–rather, their esse is simply humaness (human-esse). Similarly for dogs or anything else, their esse isn’t simply their “essence” (in the modern degraded parlance, viz. “The essence of dogs is their loyalty” etc). The esse is simply “all that which X has in common with all other X that allows us to see that X is X, which we intuitively grasp as a first principle of knowledge,itself a given/gift–the denial of which leads to a radical and destructive skepticism.”

    To bonk your head and loose conciousness isn’t to loose your humanity. (See: Terri Schiavo case.)

    Maybe I’m just getting touchy cause I feel like this is a shot-across-the-bow of my boy St Thomas.

    …we understand being in sin to be descending into nothingness (Barth).

    Love this formulation, it’s going in my brains go-to file right now… bzzziiop! Be assured that this will be repeated sometime in the next week or so to my group of 8th grade Catholic kids. Thanks!

    Wednesday, April 4, 2007 at 8:51 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Thanks, Ben. And I agree precisely that the External is precisely what gives us the gift of true being. And I see that claim as being at odds with the claim that my being is something that I possess in and of myself.

    And glad to hear that the remark on sin will be filtering down to your 8th graders! Rock on. :)

    Wednesday, April 4, 2007 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

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