Hamlet’s famous soliloquy begins with these very words,”To be, or not to be: that is the question.” In seminary I learned one of those big fifty cent words I often had to check my dictionary for its meaning. Ontological is a word we don’t throw around in ordinary conversations. I never used it in a sermon, for its strangeness would have been a stumbling block to folks without similar training. Who am I kidding? It was often a stumbling block when I tripped over it in my reading. I finally understood it after my first year of Greek. I needed to know its meaning fully and completely to comprehend it.
Current events, however, make an auspicious teaching moment for this weird word. Ontology is a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relations of being. Ontology is the the branch of philosophy which deals with abstract entities. It’s concerned with the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence, but are outside objective experience. It deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space. Our word essence carries the meaning well, for it means “the permanent as contrasted with the accidental elements of being.”
An example of an ontological statement in scripture is the discussion Jesus has in John 8:56-58 with some of the Jews who opposed him:
“Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.”
Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”
In Shakespeare’s play of the same name, Hamlet’s whole soliloquy is about his existence, and whether he should live or die:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
Ontology comes from the Greek root ontos, ōn, which is the present participle of einai, of the verb to be. As I’ve watched the unfolding horror of this “Russian special exercise” on Ukrainian soil, I’m struck by the sense of Hamlet’s description of the struggles of life:
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?
“To be” is the ontological insistence for the Ukrainians, for they desire to exist as a free people in a free nation. They resist occupation and occupiers. Dictatorship isn’t in their five year plan, or in their distant future, if they can help it. The surrounding nations have suddenly come alive in their recognition of Russia’s unfortunate foray into this breadbasket of Europe.
Yet even as the Ukrainian people are being killed in their streets, for no reason other than their citizenship; and their homes, hospitals, museums, and public buildings are reduced to smithereens by cluster bombs and artillery fire; they fight for their land and their freedom. I watch for one hour on the evening news, for I believe our world must stand witness to this horror.
Yes, some will turn away, for they have too much trauma in their own lives to bear the pain of others. Others will watch and say this isn’t our problem. If we remember our scripture, the chosen disciples abandoned Jesus in his hour of pain and need, but the women stayed by his side until his last breath. Then they came to dress his dead body’s wounds, but found an empty grave, while the men were holed up in a locked room for fear of the Jews (John 20:19).
Humanity is always our concern and when inhumane acts or conditions prevail, the human responsibility is to bear witness and to share the burden. As Paul writes in Galatians 6:2—
“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
Hamlet muses on, dithering as contemplates taking his own life, but he takes no action for fear of what awaits him in the world beyond.
who would fardels (burdens) bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn (boundary)
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
While none of us know with certainty what lies beyond this world, for no one has ever returned with souvenirs, people of faith have trusted God to be always with them, even in the worst of times. As Paul writes in Romans 8:35, 37-39—
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Artists across the centuries have responded to the horrors of war, if they aren’t held in thrall to the purveyors of such deeds. Those who exist to magnify the glories of battle are there as servants of powerful leaders, not as representatives of the fragility of the human condition. Think of Alexander the Great and his route to deification, first as a glorious leader, then as a god.
The Alexander Mosaic depicts a moment of victory in Battle of Issus in which Alexander has broken through to Darius of Persia, whom he defeated and shocked, before Darius was at the verge of fleeing. The mosaic is as great as Alexander himself, for it’s about 9 feet by 17 feet in size and contains over 1.5 million individual blocks of color, or tesserae. This Roman copy of an original Greek fourth century BCE painting dates from the second century BCE and is in the Museo Nazionale, Naples, Italy.
Here we see Goya painting the horrors of war and its impact on humanity. His inspiration comes from the French army’s assassination of a group of Spanish patriots during the 1808 rebellion. The Spanish heroes are illuminated by the intense light, but their faceless enemies aren’t easily visible in the darkness from which they operate. Not only does the design make plain Goya’s feelings, but his psychological understanding of the scene as well.
As Matthew writes in Jesus’ teaching kernel known as “The Sound Eye,”
“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (6:22-23)
Probably the best known war painting of our modern era is Picasso’s Guernica. He painted it in response to the Nazi bombing of Guernica, a Spanish town in the Basque region during the Spanish Civil War. At about 16:30 on Monday, 26 April 1937, warplanes of the German Condor Legion, commanded by Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, bombed Guernica for about two hours. Germany, at this time led by Hitler, had lent material support to the Nationalists and were using the war as an opportunity to test out new weapons and tactics. Later, intense aerial bombardment became a crucial preliminary step in the Blitzkrieg tactic.
Guernica, Picasso’s most important political painting, has remained relevant as a work of art and as a symbol of protest. It has kept the memory of the Basque town’s nightmare alive. While Picasso was living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, one German officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in his apartment, “Did you do that?” Picasso responded, “No, you did.”
Lest we forget, while wars are often started by those in power, it’s the mothers who suffer when young soldiers are killed in action. Some are fortunate enough to have the body of their loved one to hold, but it’s a sad consolation prize. How heart rending it must be for the families whose children were left behind as casualties of war. As the old Cold War era 1985 Sting song about nuclear war reminds us—
There’s no such thing as a winnable war
It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore…
We share the same biology, regardless of ideology
But what might save us, me and you
Is if the Russians love their children too.
The great sadness of this brutal war foisted on the Ukrainian people is while we’re free to see and own the pain inflicted on others, too many of us will turn away. Then again, we often have difficulty acknowledging our own pain and weakness, for we prefer to see ourselves as whole, strong, and unconquerable. All of us have a weak place and we all have an emptiness that needs to be filled. Some of us fill this emptiness by seeking power and control, while others choose various substances or activities to overuse. A few will let God’s Spirit fill us, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:7—
“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
When I see the satellite imagery of the obliterated Ukrainian towns, I recall my childhood memories of the old ones in my family repeating their ancestors’ stories of the troubled times during the Civil War. I can easily imagine in Ukraine, for several generations to come, all the stories of pain, survival, and resilience that will be told as they rebuild their nation from the ground up. In the midst of this ongoing disaster, they’re already thinking “How can we build back better?”
This is a great lesson for all of us. If our life hits a major roadblock, we can either give up, scale the wall, or find a way around the wall. Another option is to make peace with the wall and find a way to be happy there. Since Putin is tearing down all the walls for the Ukrainian people, they’ve decided to double down on being Ukrainian. “To be me” is “to be free” and that means “to be Ukrainian.” As their land lies in ashes about them, those who once also spoke Russian, a similar language to Ukrainian, now find that language dead as ashes in their mouths.
To win friends and influence people requires a gentle hand, not the ham-fist of a dictator. I only wonder if the Russian people will ever understand this. But they may have been slaves of their state for so long, they don’t know the sweet taste of freedom. Perhaps only those who believe in a forgiving God, who allows God’s people the freedom to make mistakes and gives them through the reconciling grace of renewed fellowship, are able to come through such disasters. Those who are “sinners in the hands of an angry god” must think their fate is destiny and accept it.
So the questions remain:
- What IS the nature of YOUR God?
- How does God’s nature affect your understanding of human nature?
- Does your view of humanity reflect your image of God or do you see humanity through “God’s eyes?”
- Read the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-30 and answer the questions again
Some days I AM Joy and Peace,
Hamlet, Act III, Scene I [To be, or not to be] by William Shakespeare
Why is the Alexander mosaic significant?
The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid, or “The Executions” – The Collection – Museo Nacional del Prado
Pablo Picasso: Guernica