Westphal’s book is a collection of related essays, the first one having the same title as the book — Overcoming Onto-theology. That essay is promising, but unhappily it promises all the wrong things, and then does a good job in fulfilling the promises. I have three basic criticisms of his project as set forth here, but before getting to these criticisms, I want to say something about the tone deafness of Westphal’s admirers. Anyone who can read this stuff without identifying the same rot that has destroyed the mainline denominations is just not paying attention. This is the same old trick of cutting the root and watering the branches.
First, we find him insisting on the need to water the branches. He wants lively and awe-struck praise of a particular deity, and sets this over against the arid contemplation of the divine essence by the philosophers. Nothing wrong with that, so far as it goes, but exuberance in the presence of a particular deity can still be an idolatrous exuberance. The philosophers are not the only idolators of history. Westphal says, “Before such a God one can fall on one’s knees in awe” (p. 17). Or, even better, how about a god before whom we can dance while cutting ourselves with knives? Notice the way he puts this — “a God.” Westphal also refers to a “loving, trusting relation with a God before whom one might sing and dance (or at least clap)” (p. 27). Again, “a God.”
He says, “We go to church in order to sing, and theology is secondary” (p. 28). Actually, we go to church to worship, and everything else is secondary. But worship is offered when Isaiah says, “Here am I, Lord, send me.” Worship means to make yourself available for obedience. Praise is a subset of worship, but it is not the other way around. When Abraham tells his servants that he and Isaac were going to go to the mountain, worship, and return, he did not mean that they were going to break out their guitars and overhead projector. He meant that he was going to go do what he was told to do. He was going to obey. Prostration before God without obedience is detestable to the Lord. To obey is better than sacrifice. I am not niggling over words here, as my third critique will show.
The second problem is that Westphal adamantly embraces the mediating and policing authority of our secularized modernity. He still wants the secularists to chair the meeting, although he has some complaints about how the monotheists have been mysteriously excluded from the discussions recently. Consider this, with my addition of emphases.
Heidegger’s critiqe “still retains plenty of force not only against such paradigmatically onto-theological systems as those of Spinoza and Hegel but also against what we might call onto-theologies of the right, more popularly known as fundamentalisms. While the latter may not speak the language of sufficient reason and causa sui, they do treat God as being at their disposal conceptually (it’s scary how much they know about what God is up to) and convert this quite quickly into the project of having the world at their disposal practically as well. Theocracy legitimizes itself onto-theologically” (p. 23).
So, when the believer is done dancing in front of his particular deity-in-a-room, and then emerges sheepishly afterwards out into the street, he must take care not to make any pronouncements whatever about what his God thinks about abortion, child pornography, war in the Middle East, oppression of the poor, and so on. To speak any such word authoritatively is incipient theocracy, and theocracy is (by definition) justified “onto-theologically.” Leithart is accurate in his summation of this kind of thinking — Westphal is “still in the grip of modernity.”
Actually, theocracy is inescapable. All societies are governed by the word of their god, and the only question concerns which god it is. It is not whether, but which. It is not whether there will be an authoritative voice at the top of human society, but rather which voice it will be. Westphal wants to go into a private room, privately rented, to dance before a god unlike the god of the philosophers. But when he comes away from that worship, outside, in public, he still wants the god of the philosophers to continue running the show. Anything else he calls theocracy. He has a problem with “fundamentalists” coming down definitively about what God wants, but has no problem at all with the heart and soul of secularist modernity being as and authoritative and definitive as it wants to be. Postmodern? Tccaaah!
And third, Westphal is an explicit syncretist. Onto-theology “becomes the abracadabra by which a triumphalist secularism makes the world immune to any God who resembles the personal Creator, Lawgiver, and Merciful Savior of Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim monotheism” (Westphal, p. 3). So, we have at least three gods going on here, plus any others who are fortunate enough to resemble these three. Let’s call it five as a number we can work with.
This kind of thing can only make sense a couple ways. Either there is one generic deity above these five monotheistic communities, and each community gets some things right about him/it and screws up some other things, or what ultimately matters is that each monotheism be enclosed within the community itself. God does not really rule heaven and earth, but in our faith community we talk as though he does, and whaddaya know, other faith communities say similar things sometimes. Maybe a merger down the road is possible. This is all fine, and we don’t descend into anarchy because the god of the philosophers still gets to make the laws.
This way of thinking is not incidental to what Westphal is saying. It comes up again and again. Heidegger’s criticism “is not directed toward the God of the Bible or the Koran, before whom people do fall on their knees in awe, pray, sacrifice, sing, and dance” (p. 4). Whatever. Ya pays your money and ya takes your choice. The Bible or the Koran, but you do have to sing and dance. Otherwise people might think you are a philosopher. Of course, if you start dancing then they would know you are philosopher.
“This project is the how that turns the what of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim monotheism into onto-theology, leaving us with the God of the philosophers instead of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (p. 13). Assumed here is that the what of the Christian faith, the Jewish faith, and Islam are all somehow reconcilable. But this was not the view of the apostle who wrote that if you do not have the Son, you do not have life (1 John 5:1–12). Why should Christians and Muslims make an alliance to beat up on the god of the philosophers? If that is an acceptable procedure, then what would be wrong with teaming up with the god of the philosophers in order to go after Allah instead? This is nothing but high confusion.
“Theology become onto-theology when Jerusalem sells its soul to Athens by buying in on the latter’s project” (p. 18). So, then, why is it okay to buy into Mecca’s project? I rejected the god of the philosophers the first time somebody tried to introduce me to him/it. But I did not do this to strike up a friendship with Allah, who has no Son either.
“Why shouldn’t Marion be offended? Why should Christian theology submit itself to correction from a life form that is its ‘mortal enemy’ and that employs ‘pre-Christian’ and ‘purely rational’ concepts as its tools” (p. 19). This is a great question. We should not be afraid to reject correction from an idol. But if this duty is accepted, I would want to go on to argue that we should reject correction from all idols. I know that writing this way is going to get me written off as some kind of an onto-fundamentalist. Well, that is all right. I have been called worse.
“My project is to appropriate Heidegger’s critique of onto-theology for theistic theology, for religiously significant discourse about the personal Creator, Lawgiver, and Merciful Savior of Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim monotheism” (p. 21).
Well, then, to hell with your project.