Ontology vs. Phenomenology

During the debate over Galileo, some theologians appealed to verses of Scripture to “prove” that Galileo’s sun-centered model of the solar system could not be correct. For example, Psalm 93:1 says, “the world is established; it shall never be moved.” Along with 1 Chronicles 16:30Psalm 96:10, and Psalm 104:5, this was taken to show that Galileo’s claim that the earth moved around the sun was contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures. Ecclesiastes 1:5, which says, “The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises,” was interpreted to show that the sun does move. Taken together, these were thought by some to provide a conclusive biblical refutation of Galileo’s heliocentric arguments.

The problem with this kind of interpretation is that these interpreters were mistaking phenomenological language, which describes appearances, with ontological language, which tells us about things as they really are. The sun does appear to rise and set, but this is caused by the earth’s rotation, and not by the motion of the sun. The earth appears fixed and immovable, but in fact, it rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun. 

One of the most persistent mistakes made by critics of Spiritual Friendship is the assumption that when we use any language that they don’t like (most commonly, though not limited to, the word “gay”) to describe our experiences, we are using that language to make ontological claims.

My primary interest is not in an abstract philosophical discussion. I am primarily interested in engaging gay and lesbian Christians in a conversation about what it means for us to love and obey Jesus Christ. In an interview published in America Magazine last summer, Pope Francis said:

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

I am interested in entering into the mystery of the human being, which is ultimately an ontological question. But the point of entry is not ontology: it is phenomenology. To meet the person where they are is to begin with the phenomena of their life, and to strive to engage them in such a way as to enable them to see that their own phenomenal experience can, if they listen closely, reveal the truth of the Catholic vision of the human person. (For examples of this approach, see What Does “Sexual Orientation” Orient? or My Alternative Lifestyle.)

If someone else wants to begin with ontology, I have no objection to that. That, too, can be a fruitful inquiry. But if they not only begin with ontology themselves, but insist on misinterpreting my phenomenal approach in ontological terms, then they have ceased to inquire fruitfully and become obstacles to a legitimate and fruitful line of inquiry.

If I say, “I’m gay and celibate” in a writing aimed at engaging gay people with the claims of the Gospel, I’m not elevating my sexual orientation to the most fundamental aspect of my personality. I am using the same language that the Pope uses when he talks about reaching out to gay people, and using it for the same motive that he uses it: to engage with them, starting from their situation.

For centuries, the Church’s credibility as an institution that seeks truth has been called into question due to the error of theologians who mistook phenomenological language in Scripture for ontological language. Today, those who are too quick to find ontological claims in the phenomenological explorations here at Spiritual Friendship should take more care to understand the kind of claim they are dealing with before they rush to condemn it.

Ron BelgauRon Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

32 thoughts on “Ontology vs. Phenomenology

  1. Or, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” Maybe, though, in this case it’s that they won’t, i.e. stubbornly refuse to, understand.

  2. Thank you. This was a very helpful insight for me. I read Wes Hill’s, “Washed and Waiting” and really enjoyed it. However, I still have had a difficult time fully understanding the use of the term “gay Christian,” in part I’m sure from my own theological background with its strong emphasis that once a person comes to Christ, our primary identity is to be seen as “in Christ.” So identifying oneself as either gay or straight has been a real stretch for me. However, as I read through Wes’s book (which by the way, I think is one of the best books on the mysteries of suffering that I have read in a while), I realized that God wanted to enlarge my understanding, which I believe He is doing. I discovered this site through an interview with Wes Hill that I saw. I have been stretched, and I admit to sometimes being puzzled by some of the posts. However, I have also learned a great deal and do sense the integrity and the love and desire to follow Christ by the various writers of this site. I continue to pray that we will all grow in love and grace and patience with one another as we seek to honor Christ in all things. Blessings to you!

  3. So then what’s the ontological reality underlying the phenomenological appearance of being gay? Or celibate, for that matter?

    The rising and setting sun is easy enough to relate to the star around which the earth orbits. All you need to transform the phenomenological experience into an ontological one is a change in perspective.

    Catholic teaching provides no such perspective shift in matters of sexual orientation. All it does is condemn certain acts without providing any kind of ontological basis for such condemnation.

    To say that “sex is for making babies therefore all sex that doesn’t make babies is wrong” is rather like saying “mouths are for eating so doing anything with your mouth that doesn’t involve eating is wrong”. Both statements are ontologically invalid because they fail to take into account multiplicity of purpose.

    A mouth has many purposes. It can eat and drink and talk and sing and throw up and do many other things too. Indeed most everything about us is versatile. So why must we assume that sex only has one purpose? In the face of our inherent versatility, that seems to me to be a completely arbitrary and highly phenomenological argument that has no basis at all in ontological reality.

    • Stephen, if you want a response to a blog comment, you need to ask blog-comment sized questions, not book-sized questions. You need to have more reasonable expectations about how much can be communicated in a blog post, especially a post that was not addressed to your question at all.

      I agree with you that “sex is for making babies therefore all sex that doesn’t make babies is wrong” is a fallacious argument. Among other things, married couples probably have sex, on average, thousands of times during their marriage, and only have a few babies. However, since I haven’t made the argument that all sex that doesn’t make babies is wrong, I feel no responsibility to defend it.

      I don’t think that Catholic theology has, yet, provided a good phenomenological account of its opposition to same-sex acts. I think that Spiritual Friendship is working toward such an account. But I don’t claim that we have it yet.

      It’s worth pointing out that phenomenological exploration usually does not lend itself to quick or easily explained answers. And I would add that you do not ask questions in a tone that suggests that hours spent attempting to provide an answer to your questions would lead to a fruitful discussion. Experience teaches that your response to my answer would be likely to be as confrontational as your original question. This is not a stance that invites me to want to spend the hours that would be necessary to take a stab at your question.

      Still, if you want to stick around and listen to the conversation, on this blog some of your questions may get answered.

    • One additional note: I think you over-estimate the ease of the perspective shift from the geocentric to heliocentric. It’s easy for us, because we’ve grown up with models, diagrams, etc. of the heliocentric solar system. So it’s easy for us to perform the perspective change in our imagination because we know what a heliocentric perspective looks like.

      However, given how long it took for the heliocentric model to be worked out, it wasn’t the case that people could easily imagine the required change in perspective. Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543. Johannes Kepler published his first two laws of planetary motion in 1609 and his third law in 1619. Galileo did not publish his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems until 1632, and he rejected Kepler’s elliptical orbits, insisting that the perfect orbit would be a circle However, a model with circular orbits conflicted with the experimental data.

      It was not until 1687 that Isaac Newton published the Principia Mathematica, which showed how a gravitational force acting according to an inverse square law would produce planets moving in elliptical orbits that matched available experimental data.

      In other words, what you take to be an “easy enough” shift in perspective took the very best scientific minds in Europe well over a hundred years to accomplish.

      It doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine that the kind of project we’re trying to accomplish here at Spiritual Friendship may take more than a few blog posts to work out.

      • The heliocentric model of the solar system was developed as a response to data that conflicted with the Church’s geocentric model. Yes, it took a while to be accepted, but only because the dead weight of centuries of errant theological musings had to be pushed aside.

        Churchmen of the era of Kopernik and Galileo were willing to ignore data that didn’t match up to their preconceived ideas because there was no genuine spirit of enquiry in their minds. Any data that backed up orthodox teaching was accepted. Anything that undermined it was discarded. That’s the mindset of belief: you start from a preconceived idea and work backwards, sifting through the data and ignoring or trying to discredit anything, no matter how compelling, that places your belief in doubt.

        It appears that attitudes haven’t changed much, at least not on this blog. You said “I don’t think that Catholic theology has, YET (my emphasis), provided a good phenomenological account of its opposition to same-sex acts. I think that Spiritual Friendship is working toward such an account.”

        That “yet” says it all. It’s evidence that the only real difference between you and early Renaissance churchmen is the power you wield. You’ve started with a conclusion and are now working backwards looking for data to support it. This may put you one step ahead of your forebears, because at least you realize that just repeating a belief without offering any evidence to support it won’t get you very far in today’s world. But one step ahead or not, your methods are still firmly stuck in the past. Dogma, even dogma supported by a rickety structure of half-truths and carefully selected and edited evidence, persuades nobody of anything in today’s world.

        Or at least it shouldn’t. I’m aware that the dogmatic approach exists on both sides of the sexual orientation argument and I’ve met many a gay activist whose arguments and methods are indistinguishable from those of any pope or cardinal. As someone whose opinions on this subject have been formed by objective examination of the available evidence, I bridle at any belief plucked out of thin air and defended in a dogmatic fashion. The belief itself may stand up to scrutiny, but the attitude that defends it certainly doesn’t and needs to be countered and criticized at every opportunity.

        No doubt you’ll object that this response goes far beyond the scope of your initial post. But considering that your entire line of argument in that post, and indeed this entire blog, is based on a dogmatic presupposition, it seems to me that what I’m saying is entirely pertinent to this discussion.

      • 1. The geocentric model was developed by Ptolemy, and was the best available scientific theory when it was adopted by the Church. It was not, specifically, the Church’s theory, although the Church, unfortunately, gave it more support than it should have had.

        2. Although Kepler had suggested (correctly) that the planets move in elliptical orbits around the sun in 1609, Galileo continued to believe that the planets move in circular orbits. This forced him to ignore data that didn’t back up his beliefs. Would you say that Galileo, too, had no genuine spirit of enquiry?

        3. I am glad to hear that you recognize that some people on your side are dogmatic. I’m also glad to hear that you strive to form your beliefs entirely by objective examination of the available evidence. However, having read an average of a little over a comment a day from you over the past month, I would like to suggest that your style of assertion is a little bit more dogmatic than, I think, you realize.

        Most of our interactions have consisted of you making some sort of very strongly worded assertion, and me trying to say that the issue is more complicated than you realize. It seems to me that your side of the conversation has been a good deal more dogmatic than mine.

    • Beautifully put. I am surprised that some found your language difficult to comrepehend and respond to. Perhaps it is the questions you raised that are bothersome rather than the apparent tone of your voice/writing

  4. I really appreciated your post on this topic, Dr. Belgau. I myself am a young man who believes in Jesus Christ, is washed by His blood, and who struggles with homosexuality. My sister recently asked me a very good question regarding this choice of words when we as celibate gay Christians are describing ourselves. She asked me, “So, if someone came up to you and said, ‘Hey Josh, I know this great girl that I think would be perfect for you. You want me set up a date?’, how would you respond? Would you say no because you’re ‘gay’, or would you just accept it and act like that was totally normal?”

    My sister asked me this question because she, like many of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, knows that I essentially have no sexual attraction towards females. I had just recently read Dr. Hill’s book, “Washed and Waiting,” and it was one of the best things I have ever read regarding homosexuality. One of the things I enjoyed so much was Dr. Hill’s use of the term “celibate gay Christian.” Like you, Kristin, I had trouble with this choice of words at first because I do not believe that we as believers are identified by our sexuality, but rather by our relationship with God. This is one of the places where our views and those of the non-believing world go in completely different directions. Our identity as believers comes from the fact that we are adopted, forgiven, loved, and renewed children of the living God, which was bought for us by the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ who sacrificed His life on the cross to redeem us and make us His. If I am understanding Dr. Belgau’s definitions given above, then this would be who we are in an ontological sense.

    But as I continued to read Dr. Hill’s book, I began to really appreciate his use of the term “celibate gay Christian.” It was like a breath of fresh air for me to read about this fellow believer’s experiences and how they so closely paralleled mine. And in using this terminology, he was in no way beating around the bush about what those of us who love Jesus and struggle with same sex attraction have to go through on a daily basis.

    So this brings up the question, why was this so important and refreshing to me? Why is what we call ourselves important? Let me illustrate with examples from my own life…

    As Dr. Hill addresses extensively in his book, a very real struggle for most any celibate gay Christian is loneliness. For me personally, this loneliness has been exacerbated by comments by fellow believers who, though I have confessed my struggle with them, go on acting as if my sexuality is no different than theirs. As an example, I have seen the time when I’ve confessed to a brother of mine that I have been struggling with lust lately, and he says “Oh, so you’ve been having trouble looking at the ladies today, huh?” Or when the subject of marriage has come up, and I say “There would have to be some serious changes in my life in order for me to get married,” I have frequently gotten a reply that is something to the effect of “Oh yeah, I understand. You want to finish up school and settle into a job before you think about marriage, right?”

    While I am in no way convinced that such comments are made out of intent to be hurtful or even dismissive (and could quite possibly be due to others simply forgetting about my sexuality because they see me as Josh, not a gay), they oftentimes make me want to just put my head in my hands and shout non-aggressively, “Does anybody know me??” When we as celibate gay Christians are trying to live daily to serve God in the midst of the hardships that this life may bring, comments such as these could very easily enforce that already very present thought of “Wow, I’m really in this alone.” So, in my understanding of Dr. Belgau’s arguments, this is where our use of the term “gay” to describe ourselves in a phenomenological sense can be very helpful. Ever since I read Dr. Hill’s book and have been using “celibate gay Christian” to describe myself with others, comments like the above are no longer made. My brothers and sisters in Christ hear my language and know very well that I am sexually attracted to males and not to females. Their acknowledgement of this (and the fact that they clearly love me no less because of it and are still willing to hug me, shake my hand, cry with me laugh with me, sit next to me, etc) helps me to see how God is using them to be the love and affection that celibate gay Christians need to help combat the loneliness that we are often faced with.

    So, in answer to my sister’s question about how I would respond if someone wanted to set me up on a date with a girl, it would take no less than a sentence or two to make myself clear that I do not live a homosexual lifestyle because I feel that the Bible makes very clear that this is not God’s will for mankind. However, I would decline the offer, saying “Thank you so much. I want you to know that I’m a celibate gay Christian, and that means that I love Jesus and the Bible comes first in my life, but I don’t like girls that way.” God may change my reluctance to accept the date one day, but for now, this is how I feel.

    • Hi, Josh,

      Thanks for all this. I’m glad to hear that this is helpful for you in finding better ways of sharing your experiences with your friends and family.

      One minor clarification: I’m working on a PhD in philosophy, but have not yet completed the program. So I’m still just Mr. Belgau, not Dr. Belgau just yet.

    • Reading this comment, I was realizing that another nice thing about “gay” is that it is distinct from “bisexual.” When I first started opening up to people about my sexuality, I would often say that I was “struggling with same-sex attraction,” even though in my case I did have feelings for women as well. In addition to just being easier, words like “gay” and “bisexual” add a shade of meaning, too.

    • Hey Josh, thank you so much for sharing your story. It is so helpful for folks who are coming to this site to learn more. Blessings to you, dear brother in Christ.

      • Thanks for the encouragement Kristin! It is uplifting to read your comments and see that you are being concerned about your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ! God bless you!

  5. The essential key to understanding everyone’s sexuality is emotion. What they are emotionally is how they always dramatize their sexuality and indeed every aspect of their life on a moment to moment basis is a dramatization of this invisible emotional-sexual script.
    And what they are emotionally is formed very early in childhood and is essentially firmly in place by the age of TWO. It is a script put in place by one’s Oedipal reaction to and misunderstanding of ones relationship to both parents.
    One is thus always dramatizing ones unconscious childhood Oedipal emotional-sexual patterning. Everyone is even driven to try and fulfill this invisible script.
    We like to think that we are in control of our situation and making choices, yet everything about our carefully constructed social persona is programmed by this invisible script. We refer to our thinking mind as our self, and we depend on it for information, data and beliefs. Even for our presumptions about Truth and Realty, all of which are very naive and effectively extensions of a childish, even infantile personality.

    • “Even for our presumptions about Truth and Realty, all of which are very naive and effectively extensions of a childish, even infantile personality.”

      By your own admissions, then, your theory is naive. No?

  6. If you are a heterosexual male, you felt you were the lover of your mother. Your father had sexual relations with her in which she participated voluntarily. You felt betrayed by that situation, you wanted her, and you have been playing out that script ever since – not because it is in your memory, but because you are always “with your mother”. You encounter your mother in every woman.
    If you are a heterosexual female, you felt you were the lover of your father. Your father had sexual relations with your mother, and now you are jealous and in conflict with all other women and you feel betrayed by all males.

    The sexual partner is always the parent. If you are a male you are always relating to all women as your mother. If you are female you are always relating to all men as your father. In the case of every male, all women are his mother, and his BODY is ALSO his mother. In the case of every female, all men are her father and her BODY is her father. In other words you characteristicaly relate to bodily existence as you relate to the opposite sex.
    Indeed we dramatize this unconscious pre-patterned emotional-sexual drama on to the world stage altogether. Because the world IS our body. We are completely entangled with all of the energetic processes of which the world (and indeed the entire Cosmos) is formed. Our bodies (all bodies) arise simultaneously with the World Process. There is not a jot of separation to be found anywhere.

    ALL of human history is thus nothing more than an individual and collective dramatization of everyone’s unconscious unresolved Oedipal drama – ALL of it.

    • Hi, Frederick,

      I guess I’ll just say in response that this sort of Freudian theory doesn’t seem to me particularly convincing on either a phenomenological or ontological level. It doesn’t really line up with my experience, and I don’t see the evidence to support the really radical ontological claims in the last couple of paragraphs.

      • I’m just amazed that someone who has been time-transported here from 1960 is able to use the internet with such ease. People still legitimately believe Freud? I… did not know that.

    • “If you are a heterosexual female, you felt you were the lover of your father. Your father had sexual relations with your mother, and now you are jealous and in conflict with all other women and you feel betrayed by all males.”

      Determinism, misogyny, gender essentialism, paternalism, cisnormativity. I think that’s a BINGO.

  7. My first two posts do seem to have a Freudian basis to them but they are based on a much more profound understanding and first hand felt observation or extension of the key but limited insights that Freud suggested.

    The key to understanding all of human experience, religion and the culture that extends from it is in ANATOMY or the psycho-physical or psycho-biological structures of the human body-mind-complex.
    All religions and cultures are a projection of that cultures partial understanding of the human body-mind-complex.
    In terms of emotion and sexuality the individual body-mind itself contains both the positive and negative poles in its structure. Indeed, the entire Cosmic domain is a bi-polar energy phenomenon, every fraction of which has two sides or poles.
    Thus, the outward male and female physical characteristics of human beings are the sexually differentiated extensions of a bi-polar internal mechanism that is the SAME in the male and the female. In depth, human beings are neither male or female. In fact, in depth, human beings are not sexual – which is to say that, in depth, they are not sexually particularized or differentiated at all.
    The sex-differentiation displayed in the body and presumed in the mind is a relatively peripheral aspect of our existence-being. Its purpose is reproduction, just as reproduction is a universal cycle/process/pattern of births and deaths in the natural world. But even so each body-mind-complex as a whole belongs to or appears within an always prior Divine Singleness.

    Right emotional-sexual practice therefore requires a comprehensive discipline of the body-mind-complex that is based on maintaining the equanimity inherent to the bi-polar body-mind by joining the internal polar opposites in the individual body-mind, rather than by seeking union with the external polar opposite in the form of an emotional-sexual other.
    If that is not practiced or done one is always unconsciously trying to find ones missing bi-polar completeness or intrinsic singularity in the other. Thus placing an impossible demand on the other, whether male or female, hetero-sexual or homo-sexual, which he or she is incapable of providing.
    Which is why most/all marriages and relationships either fall apart or settle into a humdrum repetitive pattern or compromise.

    • Frederick, can you point us to the published and peer-reviewed body of research that backs up your theory? Or did it, like Athena, spring fully-formed from an axe-wound to your head?

  8. Replying to Ron Belgau’s response above …

    1. No matter who developed the geocentric model, the Church was its main champion and the main tenets of the theory were incorporated into Church dogma. Had they not been then Galileo could not have been found “vehemently suspect of heresy” for advocating the heliocentric model, nor could he have been required to “abjure, curse and detest” his opinions. The Church did a great deal more than “give (geocentrism) more support than it should have had”. They defended it tooth and nail to the point of bringing heresy charges against those who questioned it.

    2. Galileo was a product of his time. The genuine spirit of enquiry he undoubtedly possessed was trammelled and set about by the dogmatic certainties of a culture that permitted no departure from Church teaching. Is it surprising that the product of a dogmatic society would take a dogmatic stance regarding his own theories? Not really. Very few of us ever succeed in leaving our inherited prejudices and habits completely behind us.

    3. So your defense against charges of being dogmatic is to say “you’re dogmatic too”, eh? The act of calling the kettle black doesn’t suddenly make the pot white, you know.

    I’ll say it again, this entire site is founded upon the unquestioning acceptance of Catholic dogma. The purpose of your discussions is not to arrive at any form of objective truth, but rather to support, come what may, a decidedly subjective and predetermined idea. There is no genuine spirit of enquiry here because whatever questions you ask, you’ll only ever accept answers that support what you want to believe. I find that both fascinating and frightening in equal measure..

    • I never denied that I believe in the dogmas of the Catholic faith. Of course, I do. But I think my approach to this conversation has been a good deal less dogmatic than yours.

      You were the one who brought up the charge of dogmatism, and my point is only: if you think dogmatism is so bad, you might want to rethink the way you’ve approached this conversation.

      I would go much farther than saying that “Very few of us ever succeed in leaving our inherited prejudices and habits completely behind us.” Not only does no one succeed in completely freeing themselves from the point of view imposed by their situation, doing so is impossible.

      We can, of course, by considering the merits of different viewpoints, and being self-critical about the assumptions behind the viewpoints that we hold, work to overcome inherited prejudices. It seems to me that given the sort of assumptions about LGBT people are common in Christian circles, the writers here have done a reasonably good job about being self-critical about our religious beliefs, and separating essential aspects of Christian teaching from bigotry and prejudice.

  9. Ron,

    I agree that we shouldn’t conflate phenomenology with ontology, and that testimony about how homosexuality is actually experienced (the phenomenology bit) deserves much closer attention than it currently receives. But I’d hesitate to illustrate this with examples of the appearance-reality distinction, like the sun’s movement. We all agree that the sun, despite appearing to move, really doesn’t move (ignoring the real, however miniscule, gravitational pull the earth *does* actually exert on the sun). However, it doesn’t seem correct to say that those of us who claim to experience homosexual attractions, contrary to all appearances, really aren’t gay. No, we really are. That’s an undeniable part of our experience. Homosexuality is very much a significant, even central issue in our lives, one that deeply affects our reality as it were.

    Rather, it seems that any substantive debate will be over claims of essence or identity, not reality (and perhaps that is all you meant by “ontology”). I imagine your critics (not me, of course!) would retort: “Yes, that’s what you feel, and those feelings are real, but they aren’t who you really are–your identity is in Christ.” Now, I have no idea what people mean when they say such things, or why they think it’s helpful. (What are these core traits belonging to one’s “identity” supposed to consist in anyway? Being a teacher? a father? an introvert? a war veteran? Why is the same rhetoric never applied to these other ways of characterizing one’s life?) But presumably they mean to say something about who you are (“in Christ”) or are not (“homosexual”) at the very core of your being; not just what’s real, but what’s fundamental.

    Why people would take you to be making such controversial claims about your identity as a person when all you’ve done is merely apply the term “gay celibate” to yourself, is beyond me. And why labeling oneself as “gay”, even if it does carry these implications of identity, should be so bad, is also unclear. What’s so bad about admitting that my gay attractions are a fundamental part of my identity? Consider: In response to Pope Francis’ question about how God sees the gay person, I’m inclined to think that God would see me with full knowledge of my inner thoughts and deepest longings, gay desires and all, and love me in light of it. I’d actually find it quite appalling if these aspects of myself were somehow erased from God’s view of me.

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