Beyond Monotheism — 9. Thinking being? Or why we need ontology . . . again

There is not so much an argument in this chapter as there is a strangely defensive assertion that ontology is gravely important. Theologians, Schneider claims, have over the centuries become increasingly wary of making ontological claims about God (and thus, by extension, about reality). This is due in no small part to their inability of their brightest stars, from Aquinas to Schleiermacher, actually to prove the existence of God; but also because of the theologian’s increased cultural sensitivity to contradictory claims about reality, as well the emergence of philosophical theological models where the ontological reality of God is preferred suspended.

Despite this aversion, ontology never quite left theology. Indeed, this is because ontology makes a claim on us, whether we be theologians, politicians, or plumbers. “Ontology is not a fusty matter for the bookish. It is a matter of import for everyone who lives–and dies.” All of us, even if it occurs on the “sub-atomic” level of our everyday consciousness, attend to ontological questions about what is real, what is false, what is of the highest value, etc. Importantly, these questions need not assume or lead us to God: “Although contrary to aphoristic wisdom, atheists do persist in foxholes, it is no mystery that times of great danger, hope, death, birth and uncertainty can pull back the covers on whatever ontological questions may have dozed through the routines of less fragile times.” Some of us, many of those who frequent this blog, find ourselves dwelling on these questions naturally. Others perhaps realize them stimulated by a piece of music or art. And still others discover the dormant questions articulated in the stories of others. We all, however, find ourselves inevitably, in the course of living and dying lives, asking fundamental ontological questions. For this reason, Schneider reasons, precisely because it is so related to our embodied nature, i.e., because they arise most starkly in moments of crises, desire, etc. that break up the mundane patterns into which most people’s lives settle, a theology of multiplicity cannot help but concerned with ontology.

Thoughts for Reflection: I don’t know too many readers of this blog who are likely to disagree with her assertion.  This may make her defense of theological ontology redundant for us, but for that no less passionately inspired.  I was particularly taken by her description of what a theological ontology does, and found it a nicely succinct way of describing the task of theology: “Theological ontology that is rooted in lived religion seeks to bring an understanding of reality at its most extreme limits into narrative focus and comprehension, through story, ritual, and song.  it concerns the big picture of origins, orientation, and ends that come into question for real people in situations of real uncertainty.”  I take “that is rooted in lived religion” to describe theology that is not merely an intellectual game, something for which Schneider has expressed disdain in previous chapters.  This is nicely put.  But, in defense of theology-as-intellectual game, a hypothetical party-trick or sophistical drunken bar conversation that will not be recalled the next day, is it not also plausible that the claim ontology makes on us motivates, be it subconsciously or otherwise, even the most ironic theological inquiry?  I wonder, that is, whether even the most disingenous theological inquiry implicitly ultimately pursues the same end that Schneider descibes.  I recognize the pitfalls in affirming this to be the case.  Namely, it leads perilously close to affirming basically anything as theology–a circumstance, by the way, that is as much a loss as it is a gain for both theology and disingenuousness.  But, and this is just a thought, nothing I’m willing to die for here and now, perhaps this is just the cost of ontology.

24 thoughts on “Beyond Monotheism — 9. Thinking being? Or why we need ontology . . . again

  1. Just Roland Boer argues here, and as I’ve attempted to do sporadically here, when I write “even the most disingenuous theological inquiry,” which kind of sounds harsh but wasn’t intended as being so, I mean to say that even atheists need not be barred from reflecting on “theological ontology that is rooted in lived religion.”

  2. Name this thinker, without the use of Google. Cheat if you want, but don’t answer:

    “[P]roperly understood, monotheism concerns an ultimate unified source beyond mere numerical unity and diversity – and it is a consequence of this very plenitude at the origin that there should be multiple and diverse spiritual mediators, some of whom can only be locally understood. It is the mark of true apophatic acknowledgment of the one God that one approaches him by multiple mediation of gods, angels, daemons, spirits and fairies: claims to direct access to a hypostasised subjective will are by contrast all too likely to issue in arrogant, terroristic interventions.”

  3. There’s basically only one person that’s going to invoke daemons and/or faeries. I do think Milbank has some pretty interesting things to say regarding “monotheism” and multiplicity, as evidenced by the quote above. It comes from the essay “Fictioning Things” which is a great read, especially if you enjoy British fantasy.

  4. This quote reveals that anti-Judaism strain in Milbank I alluded to in a recent post. That is, it decries the sort of monotheism that rejects “mediation” as “arrogant” and “terroristic.” While there is certainly anti-Islam sentiment here, too, for Christian theology the critical question is its relation to Judaism, not Islam. Now let me say that I am entirely in favor of an understanding of monotheism that embraces incarnational multiplicity, but I am also certain that such an understanding of monotheism has no need to articulate itself in opposition to Judaism. I have mentioned Hermann Cohen (his Religion of Reason out the Sources of Judaism has a very impressive chapter on monotheism with which Milbank would have nothing to contest), but there is also Rosenzweig’s Star. Why do I press this point? Not to defend Jewish monotheism, but to suggest that any Christian monotheism that has a place for faeries and demons but not for carnal Israel has not really confronted its own arrogance and terroristic tendencies.

  5. I think I’m missing something here: does Milbank claim in this article that Judaism is a monotheistic religion with no mediating figures? If so, he’s wrong on that too. But I saw no reference to Judaism in the quote given here.

  6. I think Bruce’s point is that it is implicit, so the debate is really at the level of what counts as mediating. I know that many people see in Judaism a direct encounter with the Divine, but that might mean a variety of things in practice.

  7. Far be it from me to rule out Milbankian anti-semitism. But let’s remember most early Christian angelology is basically nabbed from Judaism. My second temple Judaism history is a bit sketchy, but I seem to remember it was rather well developed around the time of the primitive church (cf. the Enoch literature etc. and its quotation in Jude).

    So yeah. Definitely wrong as regards second temple Judaism. Not that that’s so relevant for the contemporary world…

  8. Andy’s point is basically accurate. First of all, it would require an anti-Milbank bias to read anything like anti-Judaism in to the quote above, assuming one has no familiarity with his writing on Christian and Jewish monotheism generally (I’m not assuming this, but it may be true). I can assure you, like Andy says, that Milbank view this multiplicity of mediations as a specifically Jewish phenomenon. You may be right that he would want to launch a critique of Islam on these grounds, but what, in principle, would render that illicit? Might it be the case that the most monological of the Abrahamic faiths is in fact Islam? That’s the empirical case Milbank is making, and it is sort of absurd to impute anti-Judaism to him on this score. I’m not ruling it out generally from other aspects of his project, but if one is interested in making that case, looking for it where it isn’t to be found doesn’t help.

    Just to clarify… I am in full agreement that a monotheism that embraces multiplicity has no need to articulate itself in opposition to Judaism, and I think this is precisely Milbank’s point. He thinks Judaism IS a historical manifestation of just this sort of monotheism.

  9. Just to clarify: first, I have carefully used the term “anti-Judaism” and not “antisemitism.” Second: yes, when a Christian theologian attacks versions of monotheism that deny the necessity for “mediators” between the human and the divine, it is implicitly a critique of Judaism. To be sure, Philo introduced the Logos, and there are numerous pre-rabbinic and rabbinic figurations of divine immanence (kavod, schechina, etc.). Indeed, by the time of Sabbatai Zvi you can have widespread belief in divine hypostases, and today you have several Jewish groups with messianic intermediaries (Rav Nachman, Rav Schneerson, e.g). But all this is beside the point: Judaism, in the Christian theological imaginary, is, I guess I am saying, constructed as rejecting the principle of mediatorship. Let me put my point about the Milbank quote this way: why not add to the list of mediators, if Judaism were not being implicitly excluded, the Shechina and the tzaddikim? And if he had done that, and also added similar figurations of mediation for Islam, what monotheisms would there be left to attack as not offering “true apophatic acknowledgment of the One God”?

  10. I think Milbank would be more than willing to do what you say. I can assure you from discussing this with him directly that the move regarding Judaism is specifically one is trying not to make. If he is setting himself up in opposition to anything, it is to the modern conceptions of monotheism, like the one you rightly locate in “[certain] Christian theological imaginaries.” It is precisely these imaginaries that Milbank is critiquing, with Judaism. Again, I’m not saying that Milbank’s ultimately sympathies reside with Judaism, however, his point here is that modern “Christian” “monotheism” on the ground (which he would want to set up as a mirror in many ways to modern Islamist theology) are two sides of the same coin, and that an authentic Christian monotheism is really much more Jewish.

  11. There are some awkward sentences above, but it is important not to rely on singular conceptions of “Jewish monotheism” and “Christian monotheism.” Milbank is critiquing the bad versions of both, and I take these versions to be something like the object of Schneider’s critique, as well. Milbank’s slant is just that rather than there being “tools” in the tradition that show us the way beyond the “Logic of the One” (i.e. bad, totalizing monotheism) that there really is something that we’ve called “monotheism” that already escapes, in some proleptic and historically situated way, “the Logic of the One” as cipher for bad monotheism. Of course, there are different sorts of problems one might have with this, but the proprietors of this blog are better situated to explain them. I do think that there is a lot of consonance between Milbank’s ideas here and Schneider’s, although they are coming from very different places.

  12. I accept this intervention, and stand corrected. I am glad, though, that my larger point was not missed, namely, that it is not necessary to articulate an “authentic Christian monotheism” by defining Jewish monotheism as its Other. I think I would press for making the same point about Islamic monotheism (as Gil Anidjar so ably has done in his writing).

  13. In some versions of the RO narrative, the univocalist turn in Scotus was ushered in by Islamic influence on the West. Also, the influence of Islam on the revival of Greek thought in the West is overstated. Make of this what you will.

  14. Hmm, for someone calling for a close reading, you haven’t done one on Islam. If you recall, because in the RO logic, mediation is good, and direct contact is bad, some forms of Islam do have mediation, ie Sh’ia Islam and in particular Sufism, so they are superior.

  15. Anthony Paul Smith asked: “What Anidjar would you recommend”? I am thinking of the Introduction to Acts of Religion and his own book, The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy (Stanford, 2003).

  16. In the spirit of staying on topic, I have taken the liberty of deleting the portions of Anthony and Hill’s exchange that got to be too heated and too distant from the discussion of Schneider’s book. I apologize for any distress this action may cause, but it falls within the purview of the comment policy.

  17. Schwartz, focusing on the “you shall have no other gods before me” commandment, raises the problem of, to put it perhaps too abstrusely, the ontology of idolatry. If biblical monotheism’s other (and constant temptation) is idolatry, then any careful thinking about monotheism must also be a careful thinking about idolatry (and the image/copy that represents itself as self-standing). A careful thinking through of the ontology of idolatry would also be useful in getting clear the difference between incarnational multiplicity (I borrow this from Schneider) and the multiplicity of simulacra concealing their status as images. My hunch is that you would want to distinguish these multiplicities in terms of how they might be related to some unifying center: as open to it as to an infinite horizon yet-to-come or as closed around it as to a lost (and repressed) object of desire. Politically, this would be the difference between democracy (to-come) and fascism. Schwartz, by linking monotheism to nationalism/fascism, runs the danger of effacing the ontological difference between the two kinds of multiplicity. Of course, and this is the irony, her political commitments are to democracy and pluralism.

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