The ontology of a theological system is extremely important. Where does the ontology come from? This is a very interesting question. For ontologies that are not back-fitted from prior commitments they may flow from an intuition about reality. An intuition like this is a “gut” feeling, a sense about something that is not explicated rationally but something “sensed” or “felt”. Michael Polanyi called this the “tacit mode” of knowing. As he states “we know more than we can say”. An everyday example of this is dancing. A person can learn how to dance without learning dance theory. They learn the moves and rhythm without being able to articulate what they are doing. They know more than they can say about dancing. Polanyi suggests that this is the start of all knowledge. In Jean Piaget’s cognitive terminology this could be called the preoperational stage of knowing where motor skills are acquired but devoid of logic. At some point in cognitive development subsequent stages of concrete and formal reasoning are acquired. This does not suggest that prior stages of development are no longer in play, but that new ways of cognition supplement them. Polanyi calls this the explicit mode. Surely this tacit mode must have been a powerful force in the religious sentiment of early hominids, but according to Polanyi it remains a cornerstone of cognitive processes. Examples of this kind of intuiting concerning the foundations of the cosmos are the common intuitions of unity, individuation and separateness, interactions and dependencies of individuals on the whole, etc. When I say these are intuitive or tacit, they all stem from a sense of reality that is not fully explicated by reason or concepts.
An ontology that flows from these intuitions can take various forms depending on what is emphasized. If a separateness is emphasized then a dualistic ontology may emerge where God and the cosmos are in some way radically different and there is an ontological divide to be crossed in order for there to be a relationship. This is the ontology of a classic theism. Where the unity is emphasized the individuations may dissolve and identity lost in the whole. This is the ontology of a pantheism, either realistic or illusionary. The other alternative is to strike a balance of emphasis between unity and individuality. This represents a panentheism.
There are obviously theological challenges to be addressed with any of these ontologies. Since one of its primary tasks is to characterized the relationship of the sacred and the mundane, the questions to be asked are:
- Is there any distinction to be drawn between the sacred and mundane at all?
- If there is, is there a divide to be crossed for a glimpse of the sacred?
- Or is there a depth to be explored and embraced?
Obviously how one answers those questions has tremendous implications for theology and how theology relates to other realms of human endeavor. The affirmative answer to the third question is what I would like to explore in this essay.
Paul Tillich answered affirmatively to that question with his concept of “the dimension of depth.” In this concept there is no divide to be crossed in order to participate in the divine life. Rather there is a depth to reality that is available to all forms of human endeavor. This is an important concept for theology because God is not something “out there” in a separate sacred realm, but rather something inherent in all things. This does not, however, lead to a pantheism because although God is present in all things and there is a depth that can be probed, God is also “more” than the cosmos. As Tillich puts it:
The divine life is the dynamic of unity of depth and form. In mystical language the depth of the divine life, in its inexhaustible and ineffable character, is called “Abyss”. In philosophical language the form, the meaning and structure element of the divine life, is called “Logos.” In religous language the dynamic of unity of both elements is called “Spirit.” Theologians must use all three terms in order to point to the ground of revelation. It is the abysmal character of the divine life which makes revelation mysterious; it is the logical character of the divine life which makes the revelation of the mysterious possible; and it is the spiritual character of the divine life which creates the miracle and ecstasy in which revelation can be received.
In other words, there is an immanent aspect of the divine life but this immanence is contiguous with the absymal depth of God. The Logos which manifests itself in the structural depth of reason, the depth of meaning in the aesthetic, and the communal depth of the moral all flow from that which proceeds them and grounds them all in the depth of the divine.
One of the most important implications of this ontology today can be found in the area of science and religion. With a classic ontology the relationship of God to the world must be interventionist. This is because the world and what constitutes it are thought to be separate from God. As Aquinas claims, God is not affected by the world. This approach inevitable leads to a “god of the gaps” where God must overrule “natural” order to accomplish God’s will.
When the dimension of depth ontology is employed, there is no disconnect between God and the cosmos, no divide to be crossed. Instead the cosmos emerges from the depths of the divine life itself. Divine participation is one of emergence from these depths instead of crossing some divide. Interestingly enough, this “depth” model finds a happy place within modern physics. The old “entity” model with “things” like atoms, electrons, quarks, etc. which were thought to have intrinsic properties that constituted reality, has fallen on hard times. Instead the picture of the cosmos is one where its ultimate causation is surrounded in the mystery of its own depth and one where mind appears to be essential to its constitution. It is only a small step from a modern view of physics to one that intuits that the depth of reality is grounded in God, being-itself. In this view there is no discontinuity with the divine, but one that flows from the abyss of God to the reality we experience. It is a worldview with no “gaps” to be filled, but one rather where what we call the sacred and mundane really represent the continuous flow of the divine life.