I come across many big words in my reading, and to be honest, I don’t always know what they mean. But I like to pretend I do so that I don’t feel stupid. One of the words that I’ve come across again and again and never understood well is ontology. It comes up often enough in the books I read that I probably should have looked it up in the dictionary, but alas, in the words of Krusty the Clown, I’m a lazy, lazy man.
John Walton uses the word ontology in his book The Lost World of Genesis One on nearly every page, but he graciously provides a definition of the term at the very beginning. “The ontology of X is what it means for X to exist.” (24) Using the example of my coffee table, the ontology of my coffee table is how I define the “principle quality” of its existence.
In our post-Enlightenment world, we define the principle quality of the coffee table’s existence as its material construction. In other words, the coffee table exists whether or not it’s a part of my living room décor. It exists because it has been built. The source materials of wood and paint have been combined in such a way that a coffee table has been created. Where it is (my living room or the showroom floor) and how it is used (to store magazines or prop up my feet) is irrelevant to its existence. This is what we would call a material ontology. The coffee table exists because it has been constructed out of certain source materials.
But Walton contends that this is a relatively new way of understanding ontology—of looking at the world. The ancients, he says, were not concerned with material ontology because everything existed according to the will of the gods. In other words, there was no distinction between natural and supernatural. There was only supernatural. So the question was not, “Where did this come from” or “Who made this”. They knew the answer to that—the gods. The question was, “How does this work”. “People in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function within an ordered system.” (26)
This means that we have been asking the wrong questions of Genesis 1. We have been asking the text to answer questions of material ontology, but it was written to answer the questions of functional ontology. We have been asking, “Where did the universe come from” and “How was it created”. But, in Genesis 1, God is telling us how it all works and why it was all created. In order to understand Genesis 1, we need to shift our ontology. We need to look at the world through the lens of ancient cultures rather than our own post-Enlightenment worldview. Until we can do that, we’ll never understand that all-important first chapter of the Bible.