The Primary Ontological Distinction

[Note:  This is one of several articles that I am archiving here as I phase out an old website, The Four Precepts Web Portal & Spiritual Search Page.  While these articles reflect a formative period in my life and thought, they do not necessarily reflect my current opinions.  This originally had a number of links and images which have been removed (since many of them were broken). ]

The Primary Ontological Distinction
by Wayne Ferguson 14.11.2004, changed 01.07.2006

If we understand the primary ontological distinction that can be drawn between several very basic conceptual oppositions, we can begin to resolve a number of theological and philosophical conundrums.

For example, consider the following terms:

  • Being and beings
  • Reality and appearance
  • Noumena and phenomena
  • Absolute and relative
  • The One and the many
  • Substance and modes
  • Eternity and time/space
  • First Cause and cause/effect
  • The Good and good/evil

If we realize that the terms on the left refer to that which IS in the most Absolute sense and which can be thought of as the metaphysical source and ground of the relatively superficial appearances which are designated by the terms on the right, we can more satisfactorily address several difficult questions that have plagued both theologians and philosophers—problems which seem to be entirely insoluble apart from this distinction. Think, for example, of all the questions relating to:

  • The existence of God.
  • The Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
  • The theological problem of evil.
  • The philosophical problem of freedom & determinism.

Following Kant, let us think of that which we Are in Reality as being an unknown (X) which merely appears as people, things, ideas, emotions, events and discrete experiences of any kind—all of which come into existence in time and space and then pass away. Such appearances ARE in a merely relative sense—i.e. relative to one another and to the perspective of the perceiving subject. As such, perhaps we should speak of them as merely existing and not as Being, per se. Such things (etc.) are known according to rational categories which apply (in the strictest sense) solely to appearances. And while Reality (Kant’s Noumena) is unknowable in the ordinary sense of the word, appearances (Kant’s Phenomena) unfold before us in an orderly and discrete manner by virtue of the rational categories which inform them (as existing objects) and ourselves (as perceiving subjects) thereby rendering them intelligible and us intelligent.

Departing from Kant, however, let us affirm the possibility of a mystical insight that transcends our existential experience. In contrast to our knowledge of empirical phenomomena— and despite our noumenal ignorance —we nonetheless retain the potential for a kind of Transcendental awareness1 that reconciles us to our Divine source and ground, effectively resolving our ultimate questions concerning the meaning and purpose of existence. And while the rational categories through which we know the empirical world do not apply to the transcendent Reality, we may nonetheless employ them in metaphorical and analogical ways as we attempt to communicate our awareness of that which transcends our ordinary experience in space and time.

At this point, the skeptic will have at least two questions:

1. Why should I believe in this unknown and unknowable Reality?
2. Why should I believe in the possibility of a Transcendental awareness that reconciles us to our Divine source and ground?

With regard to the first question, there are at least two answers:

First, our minds demand an explanation concerning the origin of things in terms of cause and effect. But the nature of human cognition and our experience of efficient causality is such that we cannot hope to find a strictly empirical cause for the empirical universe as a whole. Things come into existence and perish, mutually effecting and being effected by other things in their environment. If we look for a first cause we must look for something that is fundamentally different from the things which it causes. And we must look for a kind of causality that is fundamentally different from that which we observe between things interacting in time and space. Otherwise, we have not found an explanation at all, we have merely formulated an intelligible description of change over time. While that is no small achievement, we are still left with the sense that existence is absurd. And apart from our dis-ease with any theory that renders all things (including ourselves) to be little more than sparks in the darkness, it is also theoretically unsatisfactory insofar as it leaves both the darkness and the sparks ultimately unaccounted for. Our only recourse is to posit something we know not what (X) that IS quite differently from the way in which things in time and space are said to be and which effects things in time and space in a way that is altogether different from the way in which we superficially observe them to be effected by one another. Of course, if one asks why this something we know not what IS, we must simply answer that it IS that it IS and is not subject to the laws of cause and effect, but is rather the source of those laws. In the strictest sense, this something we know not what is really no-thing and yet it is in some sense everything and the source of everything!

Secondly, the plausibility of such a Reality is consistent with both the perennial philosophy and modern physics and cosmology. The former describes multiple layers of reality in which the mundane world emanates from (or is in some way generated by) the higher (or deeper) levels which, though not immediately apparent to us, are ultimately more real than the apparent world which originates from and remains dependent upon them. Similarly, modern physics and cosmology suggests that the origin of our world— i.e the spatiotemporal world of our everyday experience —can be traced back to the big bang which occurred approximately 14 billion years ago! Indeed, the world of space and time appears to have exploded into existence from what is sometimes described as a dimensionless singularity containing all the energy of the universe. Not only does modern physics describe this singularity as a kind of virtual pin-point of infinitely dense matter/energy from which the cosmos originated, it goes on to describes our apparently deterministic macrocosm as being merely the superficial appearance of an indeterminate, subatomic microcosm that very much resembles the universe as it was in its infancy—just seconds (or microseconds) after the big bang. As such, it could well be that the ultimate Reality from which the universe sprang is also the ultimate Reality that continues to sustain it—a Reality that is not so very far from each and every one of us and of which it has been said, in Him we live and move and have our Being.

With regard to the second question, “Why should I believe in the possibility of a Transcendental awareness that reconciles us to our Divine source and ground?”, just as we appealed to the demand of the human mind for a kind of theoretical completion, we can also point to the demand of the human heart for emotional completion. We cannot ultimately be at peace with the idea of being mere sparks in the darkness. And again, we can appeal to the perennial philosophy which offers a historical, cross-cultural consensus that this is not the case—that far from being merely sparks in the darkness, there is more to each and everyone of us than meets the eye! So without further adieu, let us do our best to recollect that more which is our highest good.

Assuming that these answers are sufficient to suspend our skepticism, at least for the moment, we can now explain briefly how the primary ontological distinction effects the areas of questioning outlined above:

  • The existence of God

God is the Transcendental Source or Ground of all that appears. God does not exist, per se, but simply IS. Insofar as God can be said to exist, it is not merely as a being in time and space, but as all beings— the whole of existence —which can be thought of (collectively) as the incarnation of God and each of us as members in particular. The universe, as we experience it, is the way the Divine Reality appears to itself from the perspective of apparently discrete individuals in time and space—individuals in and through whom God exists and who, like ourselves, also live and move and have their being in God.

  • The Christian doctrine of the Trinity

The ultimate Reality (God) is One, but the One is eternally present to itself in the Word or Logos which can be thought of as the Eternal Creation (the Image of God which is very good indeed). The Word is said to be the creator of the spatiotemporal order insofar as it contains the intelligible principles or forms that gives rise to the phenomenal realm (which is the Word made flesh, the incarnation of God). It is the One and the eternal Image of One that is referred to in scripture as the Father and the Son. And the incarnate Son, as such, continues to participate in the life of the Father by virtue of the Holy Spirit that both unites Father and Son and also binds the community of incarnate children together. This can be summarized as follows:

  • The Father IS the One in itself
  • The Son IS the One for itself (the eternal Image and Self-Presence of the One)
  • The Holy Spirit IS the One indwelling each incarnate individual (in the spatiotemporal representation of that eternal Image)
    [For a related discussion, see With Reference to the Good.]
  • The theological problem of evil

The polar opposition of good and evil are relative terms which pertain only to relative existence and are perceived only by relatively existent individuals that are competing with one another over limited material resources. Reality is not ultimately characterized by this dichotomy. God (and what I referred to, above, as the eternal creation or Image of God) IS absolutely and is Absolutely Good—the One without a second. In contrast, the temporal creation, i.e. the apparent world, is the incarnation of God and is in some sense a reflection of that eternal Image (i.e. an image of an image). For it is the eternal Image of God— the Word or Logos —that in some mysterious way is also born and suffers and dies in each incarnate individual. From this perspective, what we call natural evil can be understood as an incomplete or distorted reflection of the Eternal Good. It pertains to the Divine nature insofar as— but only insofar as —God is incarnate. But if the temporal creation is indeed the incarnation of God, we can better understand why Christ is said to be the lamb slain from the foundation of the world and we need not wonder why an all powerful, all loving Deity permits his creation to suffer in this way. Rather than being an apparent injustice that God inflicts upon his hapless creatures, it is an element of the Divine perfection in which we participate. This is the passion of the Christ.

But the temporal creation is not only the incarnation of God which, in and of itself, seems to imply the experience of suffering and death for each member in particular. It is also quite appropriately characterized as a fallen creation, the suffering of which is profoundly complicated by our original sin. In part, of course, the temporal creation can be described as fallen simply in contrast to the eternal creation of which it is a relatively imperfect or incomplete reflection. But over and above the suffering and death which is intrinsic to incarnation, we have perennially added insult to injury when, forgetful of our race and worth, we become inordinately concerned with our relative experience of good and evil.  As a result of this preoccupation, we feel compelled to exploit both our physical environment and our fellow human beings in order to gain some material advantage in our struggle for existence. This is the genesis of moral evil for which we are in a very real sense responsible, both individually and collectively. Moral evil can be transcended insofar as we let go of our preoccupation with that forbidden fruit and hold fast to our true vocation which is to remember our Divine essence and recollect our place in the eternal creation. Doing this, however, requires that we take up our cross and that we forgive those who in their present state of ignorance do unnecessary violence to both themselves and others: Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.

  • The philosophical problem of freedom & determinism

On the macroscopic level, the world appears deterministic. It changes over time in intelligible fashion, according to physical laws which we are able to formulate and confirm on an empirical basis. If this is the whole of reality, than human freedom must be an illusion. However, if this world is a reflection of the Divine Reality, and if we can also recognize it as a reflection of our Eternal Life, then we can begin to see it in an altogether different light. Instead of feeling like victims of circumstances beyond our control, we can begin to look for the Good in this image of God’s Image and, however problematic our individual existence may be, we can begin to embrace it as a precondition for a fuller revelation of the Good in which we live and move and have our Being. For while the Good is eternal and unchanging, and while the dynamics of its temporal reflection are apparently determined, our comportment toward the underlying Reality can greatly influence the way in which it is re-presented in space and time. This spatiotemporal representation will continue to appear determined, but it will, to a greater or lesser degree reveal the Absolute Good from which it springs, depending on the degree to which we (both individually and collectively) are aware of and attuned to that underlying Reality. [For related discussions, see Bringing Our World Into Focus and The Function of Authentic Desire.]

* * *

In this essay, I have attempted to untangle— or to begin to untangle —some of the knottiest problems in the history of philosophy and theology by means of a distinction that I have labeled the primary ontological distinction. At the same time, I have tried to share a perspective that will help make existence more intelligible and meaningful to you, the reader. It is up to you to decide whether and to what degree I have succeeded. Personally, I find this approach extremely satisfying, but it is my hope that it contains at least some elements of a truly rational account and is not merely idiosyncratic speculation. In any case, I would be happy to entertain questions or criticism from any and all perspectives. There are two perspectives, however, to which I will speak in advance. First, to those who interpret scripture in rather literal terms: My disregard for such literalism will no doubt be a stumbling block between you and a deeper understanding of that which is truly vital to your faith. I exhort you to honestly address the problematic aspects of your own perspective before condemning my perspective out of hand. Second, to those who have long ago forgotten their highest hopes and abandoned their most noble possibilities, having given up on the idea of any ultimate meaning and purpose to existence: No doubt, this essay will seem like a patchwork of foolishness you. I exhort you to suspend your skepticism and open your mind once more to the still small voice of the One with Whom we have to do. In any event, it is my sincere hope and expectation that each and everyone of you will eventually Remember—there’s more to You than meets the eye!


1. My use of the term Transcendental is very general and does not pretend to be technically consistent with Kant’s usage (despite his very evident influence on my perspective). In fact, my usage is more closely related to his use of the terms transcendent and noumenal.  I have employed the term Transcendental in this very general way because it seems to connote the very intimate relationship that obtains between each of us as existing individuals (which we appear to be) and the Transcendental source or ground of all individuals (which simply IS). Somewhat like Spinoza, I want to emphasize “the union existing being the mind and the whole of nature.” This union is also acknowledged by the movement known as American Transcendentalism.




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