More on Metaphysics

As I mentioned in my last post, I am doing a series of articles on Matthew Levering’s new book entitled Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, largely in hopes of starting an ecumenical conversation between traditions like the Church of Christ that tend to be sola Scriptura, and traditions like Roman Catholicism that tends to be heavily philosophical. The point of this blog is to probe deeper into the subject of metaphysics, in order to understand why Levering’s project is so important.

In the last post, I said that Protestant theology tends to reject metaphysics in favor of using Scripture to understand God. This claim, however, requires some clarification. There are several different ways of “rejecting metaphysics.” As I mentioned before, metaphysics is simply the study of that which is not physical like God, angels, demons, and the soul. One way which a person could reject metaphysics is by rejecting that any such metaphysical or immaterial realm exists. This is a move frequently made in the modern sciences, and is sometimes called materialism, meaning that only a material realm of reality which is subject to empirical inquiry exists.

One example of a materialist rejection of metaphysics is found in this recent op-ed from the New York Times evaluating the selection of Francis Collins as the director of the National Institute of Health. Collins is a geneticist and former head of the Human Genome Project, and he is also a practicing Catholic and believer in God. Collins actually wrote a book called The Language of God which tries to show how faith and new developments in genetics are not at odds, but are rather mutually reinforcing (a good Thomist position). The author of the op-ed, Sam Harris, is not so much uncomfortable with Collin’s belief in a God but rather with his position that some things “including an immortal soul, free will, the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc.” are beyond scientific scrutiny. Harris writes,

As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?

Collins holds the position that he does because he believes in a metaphysical realm that cannot be the subject of scientific empirical inquiry which by definition can only study material phenomena. Harris, on the other hand, rejects such a metaphysical realm. If there is a reason, according to Harris, that we think that free will, morality, and suffering are mysteries, it is simply because we have not developed sufficiently sophisticated scientific methods to study these phenomena (For a good argument that probes materialist rejection of metaphysics on a deeper intellectual level, check out this from First Things).

Christians, however, who reject metaphysics, do not do so in the same way as Harris. Christians are not materialists, meaning that they do accept a metaphysical realm. Christians who reject metaphysics do so on different grounds, namely, by rejecting the validity of metaphysical speculation or philosophical arguments to talk about God. Christians who reject metaphysics tend to claim that everything we need to know about God has already been revealed to us in Scripture, and so rather than using philosophy to talk about God, we need only to open the Bible.

There are two big reasons why that position is a problem. First, say you have an atheist or agnostic scientist or believer in science like Sam Harris and you want to talk to him about Christianity. Opening up the Bible and reading about all that God has done is going to do little to persuade someone like Harris to accept the Christian claims of faith. But say instead you close the Bible and use a metaphysical argument to engage Sam, perhaps an argument from Aquinas. You might say something like, “Sam, our senses tell us that everything is in motion, and that things are set into motion when they are acted on by something else in motion. But things were not always in motion. For example, the theory of the Big Bang tells us that before time, there was no molecular motion at all, but something must have initially set things into motion. This first mover, we can reasonably say, is God.” (For the record, this is Aquinas’ first way of five for demonstrating reasonably God’s existence).

Now Harris may or may not be convinced by such an argument, but the point is, that such an argument, which is a metaphysical argument, has the benefit of being able to show how the God which Christians take on faith is not beyond reason. Certain things can be known about this God through ordinary human reasoning. Now, faith in the living God of Israel, fully revealed in Jesus Christ, cannot be attained through mere rational speculation, but is rather an effect of God’s grace. But Aquinas believed, and I think rightly, that we can make ourselves more or less amenable to faith. Sam Harris is not going to be made amenable to faith by reading the Bible, but he might be by rational, philosophical, and metaphysical arguments. Get him convinced enough that faith and reason are not in conflict, and he may get to the point where he can actually open the Bible and read it with a certain degree of docility. So metaphysics can be a powerful tool for evangelization.

The second reason that rejecting metaphysical arguments in favor of a sola Scriptura position to understand God is a problem is that God as revealed in Scripture does not always seem to make a lot of sense. For example, a Christian may site Psalm 118, “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good! for His mercy endures forever” and make a claim along with the Psalmist that God is good. But then somebody could open the Bible and read 2 Samuel 6 where Uzzah, a seemingly good guy and servant of God, reaches out to touch the ark of the covenant to keep it from falling, and God gets angry and strikes him dead. A person reading this passage could claim that such a God is not good. Or a Christian could say that God loves peace and mercy and cite the numerous Biblical passages which support this, like when Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers” or in the Old Testament:

“If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” (Prov. 25:21,22)

“Seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:14)

But then someone else could open the Bible and look at the following passages and draw a very different conclusion:

Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I am driving out from before you the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite. Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land where you are going, lest it be a snare in your midst. But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images. For you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God (Exodus 34: 11-14)

<blockquoteYou will chase your enemies, and they shall fall by the sword before you. Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight; your enemies shall fall by the sword before you. For I will look on you favorably and make you fruitful, multiply you and confirm My covenant with you. You shall eat the old harvest, and clear out the old because of the new (Leviticus 26: 7-9)

Reading these passages, someone could make a very valid claim (as lots of people do, and they frequently abandon their faith as a result) that God is actually not peaceful and merciful, but is rather capricious and wrathful, going so far as to command genocide, one of the greatest of atrocities.

Levering says that it is all too easy to read these passages and others from the Bible and create an idol out of God. Our idol may be a wrathful God who sends down punishments on the wicked and hates his enemies. Or our idol may be a revolutionary God involved in radical societal reform and social justice. Or our idol may be a God who loves and accepts all his creatures, no matter what they do. Or our God may be a strict authoritarian who has set down rules in Holy Writ and fully expects his creatures to follow them.

All of these understandings of God are present in Scripture and thus all of them have at least some element of truth. But Levering wants to argue that taking any one of these understandings of God on its own, despite its scriptural warrant, is still making an idol out of God.

Levering wants to make the claim in his book that a basic metaphysical assumption about God is that God is reasonable, and thus, we can use our reason to understand and explain these seeming conflicting passages about God. That is, if we put metaphysical speculation about God into dialogue with scriptural exegesis about God, we can come up with an understanding of God that is richer, truer, and less prone to idolatry. We will go into the details of how Levering thinks this should proceed in later posts, but he basically wants to argue that Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysical assumptions allowed him to resolve apparent conflicts regarding God as God is revealed in Scripture. Metaphysical speculation allowed Aquinas to make sense of Scriptural accounts of the seeming capriciousness of God and scriptural accounts of God as unchanging. Aquinas’ metaphysical speculation allowed him to make sense of the Christian claim that God is good, despite Scriptural evidence to the contrary. Aquinas’ metaphysical speculation allowed him to make sense of the fact that God is one, despite the fact that Christianity hold that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are also God. And Levering thinks that these are exactly the tools that Christians need to today in order to understand God and enter into greater union with that God.

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1 comment so far

  1. Scott Haile on

    I think one interesting point is that conservative Christians who reject metaphysics as a discipline don’t really *only* read the Bible. Instead, they systematize what they find in the Bible in order to describe what they believe. They’ll come up with “pre-millennial” or “a-millennial” schemes for understanding the book of Revelation, or they’ll fashion a “plan of salvation” or an “age of accountability” like Church of Christ folks tend to do –– which all require going beyond scripture in the organization and labeling of ideas, even if they can cite a scriptural passage for the content of what they believe.

    It seems to me the best way to get evangelicals to consider Thomistic metaphysics would be to talk about how their own accepted schemas reflect metaphysical speculation already. In particular, I mean the things beyond the Bible.

    If you say that Isaiah is doing metaphysics, that’s one thing––but an evangelical can still say you shouldn’t do any more metaphysics beyond what’s already in the Bible. And most conservatives who want to only live by the Bible will refuse to budge on this point till they die. But if you can find ways that the “sinner’s prayer,” or “the bridge” reflect metaphysical speculation that already goes beyond scripture, then it might take people a step closer to seeing why Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics aren’t contrary to biblical faith––and help them see that there’s no such thing as purely biblical faith in the first place.


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