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Two ontologies of ‘being’

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 29 March 2010


The film of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is undoubtedly a masterpiece. The question posed by the author is: what happens to humanity when all material and institutional culture is stripped from them and they are left in a wilderness in a desperate struggle to survive? The answer given is that people sort themselves into the good guys and the bad guys, those who do not eat people and those who do. Life is stripped down to this dark duality.

I was reminded of the film after reading John Zizioulas, an orthodox theologian, on the two ontologies of being. An ontology of being is that ground on which existence is based. Zizioulas names two ontologies, that based on nature and that based on the person. In the former, men are understood on the basis of their biology, psychology and evolutionary heritage. Mankind is essentially a species among other species. This is not a modern conclusion, it was pervasive in all Greek philosophy and in much Christian theology. For example, Augustine defines man in terms of his intelligence and as taking his place in the great chain of being that begins with inanimate objects proceeds to plants, animals, man, angels and God.

The other ontology of being, that of the person, was elaborated, according to Zizioulas, by the 4th century Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa in their Trinitarian theology. They concluded that the three Persons of the Trinity could only be understood in terms of the relations of persons. The Father is Father of the Son and the Son is the Son of the Father, the Spirit was the love between the Father and the Son. This was an ontology of being which did not rely on “being” understood in terms of the things of the world, their nature, but of existence in relation.

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Thus the name of God as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is not the name of existent beings or subjects but of relations that have the attributes of the Pauline blessing: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” This is not a blessing that proclaims the presence to the believer of a supernatural being but the presence of the grace, love and fellowship of God. In other words, talk of God does not rely on an analogy of “being”, of an analogy to things in the world but to an analogy of relationship.

This is basically why atheism in its present form is irrelevant to Christian faith because it can only think of God in terms of the analogy of “being”. Of course we all exist as natural beings, the products of evolution, but that fact fails to ground what it means to be human. Such an ontology will lead inevitably to our reduction to the animal.

The next step in this argument is to take the statement that man was created in the image of God seriously. If God can only be understood by language that is based on an analogy of relation and if man was created in his image then our ontology is also based on that analogy. Since relationship can only exist between persons, that means that the proper ontology of man is that of the person.

My reference to The Road illustrates the two kinds of ontology; the cannibals understand humanity on the analogy of nature, they are meat. The ones who do not eat humans understand humanity in terms of person. Individuals are children of God who share God’s ground of being; that they exist as fully human beings only in relation. It is obvious from Defoe’s novel that Robinson Crusoe is ontologically unstable.

Even though modern Western Society largely understands man in terms of nature, a heritage from natural science, it also displays many aspects of the ontology of person. Individualism stands for the notion that we are not just members of a species but each has a dignity specific to ourselves. While this is derived from the dignity of the person as child of God it does not carry with it a true ontology of the person as being in relation. Individualism is a truncated understanding of what it means to be human.

The notion of human rights is an attempt to produce a secularised understanding of the dignity of each individual but again is cut off from the integral aspect of relationship. There are also contradictions in our understanding of what constitutes the human when we entertain the convenient fiction that the unborn are not persons but fragments of nature. Thus the modern world is a confused mix of ontologies and it is no wonder that we flounder artistically, ethically, politically.

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The whole point of the Church is to claim that the true ontology of man lies not in nature but in the “person in relation”. While The Road puts this most starkly, in extremis, this dichotomy is fundamental to how we live our lives. Do we regard our spouse as a means of sexual gratification, as an incubator for children, as unpaid labour or as prestige possession? Or do we regard them as “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh”? Do we regard the enemy as a threat or the one we are commanded to love? Do we understand our work as a means of survival in competition with others or as paid contribution to our neighbour? Ethics falls out of metaphysics. When we understand ourselves as persons in relation over and above ourselves as individuals of a species then ethical conundrums become clear.

There is no way to human dignity from an ontology of nature. Even a limp “respect for others” relies on the fact that we live in relation. That is why purely rationalist ethics is so unconvincing. An ontology of nature gives no permanence to the individual. Death and decay are the end point of human life. By contrast, an ontology of the person transcends death. This is not to reduce the significance of death that will one day sweep us all away, but it is to acknowledge that “being” for us is not defined by our consciousness or nature, but in our relation with God that is immortal. In death we become a member of the communion of saints, we may be lost to ourselves but we are not lost to God.

The popular view of heaven as a continuation of life in another place is conditioned by an ontology of nature because it imagines heaven in terms of this earthly life. But if we are true to an ontology of the person we may believe that even in death our relationship with God survives. It is significant that Paul talks about worldly hazard and death not in terms of the loss of bodily function or of consciousness but as the impossibility of being separated from the love of God (Rom 8:38).

It is significant that the new atheists are headed up by biological scientists. These are men who have been trained to only see nature and their understanding of the human is based on an ontology of nature. This is really a return to Geek thought that could only see death and fate as celebrated in their tragedies. The new atheists would have us return to a time in which the only realities are those of nature; power, competition, pleasure and death. The dignity of the individual has no basis in nature, the only basis for the family is that it transmits our genes. This is how life is potentially reduced once the shallow grounding of human rights and respect for the individual are swept away.

The debate about atheism is not about the existence of a supernatural being but about the truth of the ontology of the human as person in relation. If we lose even the vestiges of this then our future looks bleak indeed.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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