Let’s Hear a Cheer for Metaphysics

The rather immodest aim of metaphysics is the comprehension and unification of all understanding. However, we have passed the point where any one mind or even any one system can encompass all of our expanding knowledge of the wonders surrounding us. Nevertheless, there is something from metaphysics we need to retain and this is its search for the reality underlying all appearances. It was the goal and the hope of the metaphysician to find a unifying concept of reality that would invest all things with value. Today we lack a recognized and agreed upon set of values and therefore we need the return of the metaphysical ideal.

Some time ago metaphysical studies were divided, and by the division reduced, into theology, philosophy and science. Contemporary theology is chaos, and even if it were not most of it is unrecognized and unheeded in a secular world. Philosophy, instead of studying our minds, studies words and what is left of the noble pursuit is mostly historical studies of past philosophers and critiques of their systems. As for science as a guide for humanity, the magic has mostly departed. Few think today that science is the road to peace and prosperity. Science is good with facts but poor about values.

Politics, the art and practice of government, has much to do with facts, but its ultimate choices have to do with values. And it is in making choices that our political system is floundering. A quick contrast can be made between the current politician, who tends to obtain his or her value system from public opinion polls, and the founders of our country.

The politicians then generally believed in a transcendent deity who was the source of political values and human dignity, and who was the judge of their actions. The judge of contemporary politicians is the election. And their highest aim is reelection.

This decay in the political value system is not the entire fault of the politicians. It is the result of a declining metaphysic. Instead of a nation with a common set of shared values, our culture has allowed values to become so privatized that it is impossible to reach anything approaching a consensus on any given issue. In fact, many people would argue against the possibility or even the desirability of a shared value system.

Governing, though, is an exercise in reality. Real choices have real consequences in real lives. Political actions based either on wishful thinking, or arbitrary or non-existent values, will in the end be destructive. What we need is a politics based on reality. And knowledge of reality comes from a search for truth. And the search for truth leads us back to metaphysics. Therefore, let’s hear a cheer for metaphysics.

Self-Actualization or Creation

I think the two choices for explanations of physical reality boil down to self-actualization or creation. The people who argue for self-actualization (and do they argue) assume that the universe contains in itself properties that caused all that has happened in it since its very beginning. This brings us to the initial difficulty.

The initial difficulty is that before the universe came into being it had no existence we can recognize, at least in terms of something observable or measurable, in other words something subject to science. Some people get around the initial difficulty by postulating an oscillating universe, one that expands and contracts but that is nevertheless self-existent. In this view, the Big Bang was the beginning of the current phase of expansion. Again, there is nothing left from past oscillations for scientists to measure or observe.

One argument for self-actualization that was new to me was the suggestion that what we call the positive part of the universe is balanced exactly by the dark energy and matter that exists so the universe is a net nothing. The person who wrote this possibly was unaware that both traditional Jews and Christians believe that the universe was created out of nothing. If in fact this suggestion were shown to be true, it would be a vindication of some religious beliefs, and undoubtedly require a major expansion of astrophysical knowledge.

Before the Big Bang was accepted as the correct explanation for the beginning of the universe, scientists and philosophers all the way back to the early Greeks had thought the universe to be static and self-existent in its attributes. This thinking is still carried over into present-day understandings. For example, one person dodged the issue of the origin of life by stating that it had nothing to do with the validity of the theory of evolution. For that person evolution was an explanation of almost all of life. The trouble with this older mode of thinking is that science has made our knowledge of everything physical far more complex.

In mathematics, solutions to problems generally begin with a set of initial conditions. It is just these initial conditions that pose more of a problem for science and philosophy than the working out of answers to how physical reality operates. This is because the initial conditions are established by one-time unobservable events. This results in sometimes conflicting ideas. For instance, we are told that all life on earth came from an original biological event. We are also told by some biologists that life will arise in the universe anytime conditions are right. You can probably see the contradiction. Since life has emerged on the earth the conditions are obviously right. So, how come it only happened once in five- billion years.

The space-time continuum is also a great mystery. It would seem to be in a chicken-and-egg relationship with the energy and matter that constitutes the universe. So, did it exist before the Big Bang or was there something in the Big Bang that brought it into existence? And how is it a property of the space-time continuum that it is almost infinitely elastic and that this elasticity produces what we call the force of gravity as a result of the space-time continuum being deformed by matter? The same kind of question applies to the weak force and the strong force. Where were they when no particles existed? Did they exist before particles or were they brought into exist by the formation of particles?

There are more questions for physics, and we have not even reached biology. Where did the properties of quantum mechanics come from? What formed the particular atoms that we arrange into the Periodic Table. Now we can go to biology. Why are there right-handed and left-handed molecules and why are organic molecules shaped in particular ways for specific functions? How did it come about that a genetic code was necessary for life and how did that code come into existence?

The idea of self-actualization becomes even more unlikely as we consider the things that make us uniquely human, such as culture, speech, music, art, abstract thought, technology, agriculture, imagination, conceptualizing and so forth. So why does self-actualization seem very attractive to many people. I think it has to do with two things: ego and rebellion. Our egos are another of our immaterial characteristics. We all seem to have one of either smaller or larger size. It seems to be that people who strongly believe in one of the various forms of self-actualization are people with large egos. I think that one such type, atheists, have egos so large they think they can push God clear out of the universe. That being the case, they typically are sure they are more intelligent than people who believe in creation.

Rebellion comes into the picture as a result of certain temperaments encountering authority figures, normally in their family or in a church where they were taken as children. One way of resistance for such people is to adopt contrary views. When this resistance meets with support in peer groups or educational institutions, it brings ego gratification and a source of identity that is hard to forego. That being the case, it is hard for people in this situation to abandon the idea of self-actualization despite the fact it requires the acceptance of large improbabilities. Self-actualization is in truth a harder belief than faith in creation. This is evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of the human race has always accepted that there was some spiritual entity that brought them and everything else into existence.

American Christianity after Its Reformation

It is easier, I think, to criticize than to provide useful means of improving a given situation. It is easier to tear down than to build up, easier to find fault than to overlook minor errors. With this in mind, while my post “The Reformation of American Christianity” could be expanded into a book if I had the time and interest, I think I should present some ways American Christianity after its reformation should differ from the present version.

A friend once told me his church’s doctrines rested on a three-legged stool. One leg was Scripture, another tradition, and the last, reason. I refrained from telling him his denomination had knocked all three legs out from under the stool and in its present version rested on egos and opinions. A truly reformed (note the lower case r) American Christianity must stand on a renewed and higher view of Scripture than is presently held almost anywhere. Traditions, meaning common practices or supposedly authoritative interpretations, must be looked upon as nonessential differences. And the mind we bring to understanding Jesus Christ must contain the whole potentiality God has given us—not just reason but imagination, intuition, emotion, empathy and all the other facets of grace-fueled thinking.

It is evident that a renewed understanding of Christianity will require new theology. Theology at present is essentially philosophy. An early Christian, Lactantius (who tutored the Emperor Constantine’s children), noted that philosophers all had different opinions and spent their time arguing with each other. He thought Christians should not bother arguing with them. His advice would seem to apply to us today. Theologians of the reformed American Christianity should be mining a corrected view of Scripture to tell us ordinary Christians all that we can understand about the nature of Christ, how we can become more like him (in his human nature), and how we can come to live, think, and act in ways that glorify God.

Our reformed Christianity will have a difficult time returning to the original proclamation of Christianity “Repent of your sins and believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” The most difficult part will be convincing contemporary people they have any sins of which to repent. Sins, both physical and mental, have been sanitized by the secular world, and by many Christians, through lowering standards of behavior (while being totally intolerant of those who are politically incorrect). The idea behind this attitude is that if some unfortunate attitude or behavior cannot be eliminated by prohibition then it can be legalized and thus made no longer a problem. This fits right in with the advocacy of social chaos and personal dysfunction so prominent in our culture.

The apostle Paul had to speak across a huge cultural divide such as we face when he preached to the Athenians in the Areopagus. Hughes Oliphant Old, in volume 1 of his series The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, described the situation, after the sermon Paul preached in Acts 17:22–31, in these words. “Polite apologetic has been put aside here. There was nothing diplomatic about telling the Athenians, of all people, that they were ignorant. To threaten the day of judgment was to reveal oneself as being hopelessly beyond the pale of humanism, and to affirm the resurrection was to kiss enlightenment a fond farewell.”

Unless reformed American Christianity is totally convinced of the truth of the Word of God, it will not be able to change minds that are immersed in a secularized society. The goal should be to bring people who are confused by all the godless ideas of our time to the point where they will say, as George MacDonald had a woman redeemed by the Holy Spirit say in his book The Curate’s Awakening. “I would like to be loved as an immortal woman, the child of a living God, and not as a helpless—a helpless bastard of Nature!” MacDonald back in 1876 saw the issue clearly. People could be children of God or the fatherless products of nature. He had Helen Lingard make the choice we can hope more and more people make as a result of a clear proclamation that there is a choice to be made.

It would probably not be enough to make an impact on our culture if our renewed Christianity only resulted in a spiritual unity. It would probably not be enough for us. We are, at this stage of our existence, physical creatures and we receive many benefits from being together in groups of various sizes. God knew this and so provided in the Mosaic Law for three national one-week feasts each year. These gatherings are called the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Through all sorts of circumstances these feasts kept the Israelite people united in their corporate identity, even when they did not have their own nation.

We Christians do not have any instructions on how and when and where and for how long we are to be gathered. Yet we probably have a need for doing so and are actually told in the book Hebrews not to forsake doing it. Christians coming together began before the Day of Pentecost and continues to this day, not only in weekly services, but in such events as processions, retreats and on many other occasions. A renewed Christianity would find in the leading of the Holy Spirit, and as a result of the love of Christians for other Christians, ways to express their unity in events of various styles and purposes.

The message of a renewed Christianity will include the kingdom of God as a focus of loyalty. The present diverse and diffused Christianity is neither centered on Jesus or on his kingdom. Renewed churches will see their role as servants of Christians and not as their “owners.” There is enough work for renewed churches to do in proclaiming the gospel, healing damaged Christians, leading in the sharing of resources, and so forth so there will be no need for them to try to limit the unity of the Body of Christ and/or oppose allegiance to the kingdom of God.

The Protestant Reformation produced a variety of new understandings of Christianity and also continuing divisions. Nevertheless, these different ideas of what was right, working together in ways not planned by humans, lit a flame in Europe that, although it is now close to burning out, changed the lives of individuals, the shape of cultures, the destiny of nations and has now spread virtually all over the world. We can only hope that a reformed American Christianity will light in us a fire that will illuminate our darkened world.

The Illusion of Progress

Ever since I purchased a book titled The Rise of the West by William H. McNeill, I wondered about why the word Rise would be tied to a history of Western civilization. Finally, at page 263, I came upon some words that made it clear to me that the concept of human progress began with the sophist philosophers of Greece around 500 B.C. This is what McNeill wrote.

“The sophists undertook to teach the arts whereby an ambitious man, even of ignoble birth, might learn to influence the assembly and lead the people by virtue of a proper use of words. But, beyond that, the sophist claimed to have a method of verbal reasoning according to precise rules of argument, whereby a man might hope to unravel all the mysteries of the universe, given the necessary acuity and an appropriate store of information. To hear and understand the radical ramifications of the famous phase, ‘Man is the measure of all things,’ from the mouth of Protagoras (ca. 480–410 B.C.) himself; to discover the parochial limits of traditional Athenian concepts of the gods, the world, and men’s place in it; personally to grasp after new truths to replace the unexamined superstitions of the past: all this must have been in the highest degree exciting, and, at first, liberating.”

I cannot distinguish from the words McNeill wrote any difference in the thinking of the sophist philosophers and that of twenty-first century humanist philosophers. If this is true, then possibly the idea of progress in human understanding is simply an illusion. We have been told that rise is inevitable in human affairs. However, if there has been no identifiable progress in secular philosophy in the approximately 2,500 years separating the sophists from the humanists why should we think progress is a certainty.

I think progress has been confused with increasing complexity. McNeill meant by rise the ever increasing complexity of human culture. Western thinkers looked at the growth of complexity in most areas of human endeavor and tied it to the idea of inevitable human progress. It makes an optimistic and promising story and most of us have accepted it. However, it neglects to show there are two sides of history. Along with the betterment of the human condition due to improvements in the way people live there have been regressions in the way people think. I think we should not be blinded by the appearance of things but look deeper into the reality.