Ontotheology to Excess: Imagining God without Being

By Godzieba, Anthony J. | Theological Studies, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Ontotheology to Excess: Imagining God without Being


Godzieba, Anthony J., Theological Studies


One way to read contemporary philosophy of religion and philosophical theology is to view it as a series of attempts to determine how God became a problem in the West. Such arguments tend to proceed historically or genealogically. Each of them also characteristically claims (ironic in our current antifoundational setting) that it alone has the real diagnosis of the problem, the ultimate foundational argument and definitive explanation which outflanks all the others.

I would like to suggest a reading of the history of God in the West from the point of view of Christian philosophical theology, which needs more nuance than I can supply here, but which is plausible and could serve as my own attempt at a definitive explanation. This reading starts with the Hebrew Scriptures, in the narratives of those ancient theophanies which became classic reference points not only for Judaism but also for the early Jesus-movement and its later reception as Christianity. Preeminent among these narratives is the revelation of God to Moses in the burning-bush episode in Exodus, which climaxes in the revelation of the divine name YHWH (Exod 3:14-15). In this name whose translation still confounds the commentators, there is conveyed the classical dialectical character of God: transcendent yet immanent, mysterious yet available, absent yet present, whose true character will only be revealed in God's actions on behalf of Israel. The struggle to maintain this dialectical view is carried into early Christian literature and into the medieval schools and syntheses. This is so even though the link which the ancient and medieval God-arguments establish between biblical faith (which sees God as self-evidently present in action within human experience) and Greek metaphysical speculation (which assumes a situation where God/gods have become questionable and need to be re-established through rational criteria) creates an almost unbearable tension.(1)

The dialectical view of God begins to break down with the late medieval Nominalists' insistence upon God's omnipotence and transcendent freedom. These qualities put God beyond the reach of any sort of metaphysical speculation, which for the Nominalists would function only to cut God down to fit our intellectual limitations.(2) Here, while the Nominalists intend to protect God's prerogatives through an emphasis on transcendence, the resulting overemphasis makes God extrinsic to human experience, unreachable, "an absolutist deity who acts in an arbitrary manner" and "who does not liberate human freedom but oppresses it."(3) The history of modernity and modern philosophy reflects the progressive simultaneous canonization and rejection of this extrinsic God. For an example, one might look to the successes of renaissance science which rip off the "sacred canopy" of the ancient and medieval world and demonstrate clearly how superfluous is the appeal to God to explain natural events. Or one might turn to the God-arguments of Descartes and Kant which confirm God's role as an ancillary factor supporting human autonomy. The various strategies within modern philosophy and theology (such as Deism, the romantic deification of nature, Schleiermacher's appeal to feeling) which attempt to deal with the progressive marginalization of God into an extrinsic object ultimately fail, as the received success of the 19th-century criticism of religion shows. But who is the God who is a projection and an alienation? Who is the God who is dead? On this reading of the history of the God problem, it is the God bequeathed to the 19th century, the extrinsic God; and Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche are simply confirming a movement which began with Ockham. They are clearing the decks, as it were, of those images which have become wasted and ineffective.(4)

There is current a different reading of this history which identifies it as being ontotheological through and through, irredeemable, unable to pay off on its promises to speak about reality or God. …

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