I’ve found in my recent travels and conversations that most of the disagreements we have with others about matters of faith, doctrine, morality or society are usually anchored in the bias toward either a phenomenological or an ontological world view. The meanings of both of these terms – varied in both degree and in number through the centuries (especially the first term which is by far the younger) – are basically what things, or beings “are perceived to be” and what things, or beings “are”. I realize that for any arm-chair (or actual) philosophers, ethicists, theoreticians, theologians or other lofty-minded folks, my reduction of these terms may seem an overly facile “boiling down”. Perhaps even an offensive one. In fact to some it may seem akin to reducing a term like “medicine” to “stuff that helps” or “mathematics” to “addin’ and subtractin'”, or “music” to “notes, sometimes with words”. For that I am sorry. But I’m not going to lose much sleep over it.
On balance, I think my use of the terms, for the purposes of this quick post, is fair.
The phenomenological world-view is one concerned principally with the world of appearances, inferences, senses, impressions and suppositions. The ontological world view is one whose principal bias is on the real, the actual, the true, the essential, in short, the is of things. A person with a phenomenological bias in walking through an apple orchard may spot a fruit dangling from a random branch and on examination notice this particular fruit looks a bit orange-ish (not red), and seems in fact more round, than apple-shaped, and upon further inspection may come to notice that the scent of the thing is perhaps even a bit “citrusy”. Given these observations the person may be tempted to conclude that the fruit is in fact an orange, or that we should be open to the possibility that it might be, or at the very least that it doesn’t really matter what the thing is, other than to say it strongly resembles an orange. To folks whose center is principally ontological – all fruit growing on an apple tree, irrespective of its individual appearance, taste, smell, shape or weight, is, in the end, always, an apple. Ultimately, what a thing appears to be or represents may or may not have any bearing whatsoever on what the thing actually is.
In apologetic circumstances, particularly those of a moral dimension, I find this duality – or perhaps dichotomy is better said – exists in abundance. The position on homosexual “marriage” as one example. That conversation typically goes something like this:
“I THINK THAT ALL PEOPLE WHO LOVE EACH OTHER SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO GET MARRIED.”
“Marriage is a relationship unique throughout all of civilization defined explicitly by the fact that it is contracted only between one man, and one woman.”
“BUT IF TWO MEN, OR TWO WOMEN REALLY LOVE ONE ANOTHER, THEY SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO GET MARRIED AND LIVE A LOVING, HAPPY, MONOGAMOUS LIFESTYLE – THIS ENSURES A PROSPEROUS AND BALANCED SOCIETY.”
“But that relationship, no matter how loving, happy or monogamous, would not be a marriage. Marriages differ from other relationships in ‘kind’ not in ‘degree.'”
“WHY WOULD YOU CARE, AND WHO DOES IT HARM, IF A MAN GETS MARRIED TO ANOTHER MAN?”
“A relationship between two men may make me care a great deal, or not very much, it might harm many people or may not harm any, but none of that changes the fact that the relationship still could never be a marriage.”
On and on this exchange might go – around and around like a carousel… lots of motion, but no real progress. The fundamental point of disagreement lodged irrevocably (and sometimes invisibly) in the sands of phenomenological perception cantilevered against ontological reality. Our ALL CAPS friend speaks convincingly of “true love,” “monogamy” and “happiness”, he appeals to the libertarian principle of “live and let live” he even offers up rhetorical salvos about “prosperity” and “balance”. All of this is very well. Even reasonable. All the while our ontological speaker is fixated on the inevitability that all arguments designed to construe marriage in any way outside of what a marriage actually is by its very nature, are flawed. To his mind the exchange sounded something like this:
“I THINK ANY MAN WHO BELIEVES THAT HE IS A FISH, SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO BECOME A FISH, DIVE INTO THE OCEAN AND SWIM AWAY INTO THE SEA.”
“Men, by their very nature, are not fish.”
“IF A MAN REALLY LOVES FISHDOM, HE SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO BECOME A FISH AND LIVE A LONG, HAPPY, PROSPEROUS FISHY EXISTENCE.”
“The man might indeed be very happy, prosper and live a long time, but he would nevertheless not be a fish.”
“WHY WOULD YOU CARE, AND WHO DOES IT HARM, IF THIS MAN LIVES AS A FISH?”
“I might care a lot, or a little, and it may harm many, or none, but that has no bearing on the fact that this man, would still never be a fish.”
You see what I mean?
So what do I take from this? I take from this that our Phenomenological speaker should understand the differences between essence and accident – the classic Aristotelian formula which classifies reality between what things are, and what things appear to be. This should be helpful to our friend, and anyone frankly, if for no other reason that it opens up a vast ocean of perception that deepens our philosophical understanding of the world around us.
Our ontological friend on the other hand can learn from this exchange that his “rightness” with respect to the question of what marriage – in this case – actually is, may get him no closer in helping someone find a deeper connection to the truth if he presents the truth in a monochromatic way. His being right about the essence of marriage, while laudable and never to be compromised, may, if not enhanced by a deeper understanding of the phenomenological world view, be limiting his quest to make a convert to his world view.
Apologetics and evangelism should seek to faithfully further the Gospel and the quest for the truth while maintaining a healthy grounding in the biases of other world views – in the end, that’s how we win souls, instead of arguments.