In a fundamental way the church fathers and tradition has rejected the traditional attribute driven ontology. Long ago I read a presentation describing the difference between Platonic and Aristotelian ontological methods by comparing how they attached, manipulated, and viewed attribute attachments to ontological categories. The Nicene fathers and the theological/philosophical aftermath of that 4th century upheaval rejected that and arrived at a new conception. Their notion was that ontological objects and categories are not defined by their attributes but defined instead by the qualities and aspects of their relationships with other objects and categories. Existence of a thing depends crucially not on its substance of qualities (attributes) but on the aspects of its relationships with others things. A chair is not a chair because it has chair-like attributes but because people (or I for example) have a relationship with it that categorizes it as chair.

I’d like to examine a few consequences of how that works especially in a Christian context.

  • A primary example of this is that the ontology of God, the Trinity is to be understand relationally. We arrive at our understanding of God not by understanding God as such, or as Father, Son, and Spirit by examing their attributes, but instead by understanding the relationship between the three. Put more radically, God’s existence depends on its relational nature between the hypostasis.
  • Consider the radical science fiction notion of transference of person from one body to either a machine or another body. There is difficulty in deciding where and when “transference” is valid especially in the case of information or ability loss. But if existence and identity is defined relationally does that work? It seems to me likely that it does and perhaps avoids some of the ambiguities and difficulties that arise in the attribute model.
  • In the context of abortion a lot of the arguments I’ve seen center on attributes of being. Specifically what attributes the fetus must obtain in order to qualify as person. This is often state in terms of intellectual or brain development or an attribute of “independent” living or existence, i.e., viability. However that existence of the fetus might just as well be defined relationally. In the relational model it is a little more difficult to distinguish infanticide from abortion. However, another aspect of relational ontological thinking arises … that of the disordered relationship. Abortion (or miscarriage) can perhaps be viewed as a disorder in the relationship between mother and fetus.
  • Consider as well, the marriage/homosexuality discussion in the context of existence and a ontology based on connection and relationships. That is perhaps a fruitful avenue for later discussion. I think it’s clear that both sides of the question can be presented in this methodology and unlike abortion the resolution is not so clearly biased (as in the case of abortion there is a clear bias against abortion in my view with this ontological method). The real question is by framing the question in this way, can some of the heat be abstracted from the discussion? For that might be a very useful thing to do at the very least.

Filed under: ChristianityMark O.Religion

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