Ask Dr. Cobb

August 2007 Question

Metaphysics seems remote and obscure. Do Christians really need to be concerned about it?

Dr. Cobb's Response

Obviously many believers of great faith have gotten along very well without thinking about metaphysics. I have emphasized “about” because I do not agree that they are free of metaphysical assumptions. All of us assimilate some ideas about what is real very early in life and these are modified by our studies and additional socialization. It makes a lot of difference what we assimilate and our socialized into believing. But many people get along quite well without thinking about this dimension of their beliefs.

These deep-seated and rarely considered beliefs are of many sorts. If you have lived your whole life in the United States as a Euro-American you are likely to have assimilated beliefs about the nature and history of the United States that are different from those you would take for granted if you had been brought up as a Native American or in China. These differences are not, at least primarily, metaphysical.

We also grow up with deep-seated assumptions about what kinds of events are likely or even possible. Here, metaphysics does play a role. For example, some people easily accept the occurrence mental telepathic communication. Others are quite convinced that it is not possible. The difference does not come from empirical evidence but from metaphysics. That is, some people see the world as being such that entities, at least psyches, can act on one another at a distance. At the other extreme are those who fully accept the view of the world as a machine.

Neither of these views necessitates either affirming or denying God. But God’s role is thought of differently in the two cases. Those who see creaturely psyches as interacting may think everything psychic or spiritual can be explained by this, or they may imagine that God as cosmic psyche interacts with all the creaturely ones. Those who view the world as a great machine may consider the machine fully self-explanatory, or they may think that a machine requires an intelligent and powerful maker, who is outside of it.

What views one holds about the nature of reality depend on many things. To a large extent they depend on the beliefs and attitudes of those by whom one has been surrounded and on what one has heard and read. To some extent it depends on individual critical reflection. This reflection will involve metaphysics, whether or not the one who reflects employs such a label.

Since the way we view reality is our metaphysics, and since few of us think about it, what metaphysics governs our thinking is largely determined socially and historically. There are accordingly cultures that are supportive of Christian faith in God and others that make it more difficult. The dominant culture of the twentieth century was an extreme case of one that discouraged such faith.

Since there is great diversity of cultures in the United States, the idea that one is dominant needs explanation. Perhaps it would be clearer if I wrote instead simply of the culture that controls higher education. However, without a strong base in the wider society, a culture could not control our universities. And this control has a great effect on the broader culture as well.

The control of this unfriendly culture over the university affects most directly those segments of the church that have been most concerned to relate positively to science and critical scholarship. Since there most articulate practitioners are mainly in the universities or closely related to them, these Christians who try to be open to the truth and wisdom of the culture have adapted extensively to that culture. Accordingly, on the whole, they have declined in conviction, in appeal, and in influence as well as in membership and resources. Since the cultural metaphysics has no place for God, those most open to being shaped by that metaphysics find faith in God difficult to retain.

Faith remains vital and life-shaping chiefly in segments of society that are less influenced by the dominant culture. There it expresses itself in ways that reinforce the negative views of the shapers of the dominant culture. Although churches composed of such people continue to have considerable vigor, they are uncomfortable for those who have assimilated major elements of the dominant culture.

One major and influential expression of the dominant culture is the university. Its metaphysics is predominantly the mechanistic one noted above, but by the twentieth century it excluded the option of supposing that one should posit a creator of the machine. All events in the machine are to be understood in terms of the inner workings of the machine. There can be no intervention of God. When theists who accept the machine analogy have argued that there are leaps in evolutionary development that are better understood if we posit some purposeful force acting on the machine from without, this idea cannot not really be considered. Most Christian leaders in the declining old-line churches rush to the defense of the integrity of science.

Actually the situation is still less favorable to faith than this suggests. The self-containedness of nature excludes not only God from having any role, but also animal, and even human, purpose. Of course, scientists recognize that apparently purposeful human activity plays a large role in what happens today. But they are pressed by their metaphysics to believe that ultimately all this is really explained mechanistically. In due course, they suppose, science will be able to explain human activity, including human thought, exclusively in terms of matter in motion, that is, of the machine as conceived in the seventeenth century. Meanwhile as far as possible they leave human activity out of the subject matter of the natural sciences.

I am not suggesting that anyone lives entirely by this metaphysics. I assume that is impossible. This limitation reduces its power and opens up some space for faith to survive. Nevertheless, that faith in God has great difficulty articulating itself in a way that is convincing even to the faithful. Communities composed of believers of this sort are not likely to be able to act with great conviction.

A major response of philosophically informed theologians is the complete rejection of metaphysics. They do not mean that people fail to have beliefs about their world and how to live in it. But they do mean that everyone should recognize that the “world” in question has no existence in itself. The supposition that the world, or God, exists independently of our beliefs about it is “metaphysical,” and as such it should be abandoned or outgrown. Instead we should recognize that we live in a world of symbols whose meanings are exhausted by their relation to other symbols. In the Abrahamic traditions, “God” is a centrally important symbol. Its meaning can be found in each Abrahamic tradition in its relations with other symbols. To be a Christian is to be socialized into this symbol system and to live in terms of it.

This response frees Christians from the dominance of the mechanistic worldview. That is also seen as a system of symbols that do not refer to anything outside the symbol system. Christians should live in their symbol system and not one that has been adopted by some other community, such as that of scientists. Since none of our language refers to anything outside of language, there need be no conflict among such systems. In this form of thought, the question of truth either disappears or functions as one symbol among others receiving its only meaning within particular symbol systems.

The study of symbol systems certainly proves illuminating as does this understanding of Christian communities. But I am here making only one point. In the theistic traditions, including Christianity, prayer and worship, trust and devotion, have been directed to what, in these terms, is a metaphysical reality. That is, believers have understood that God is real quite independently of how they think of God. All that has been meant by “faith” has depended on this belief that the word “God” refers beyond language to another kind of reality. This way of saving “faith” does not take us very far.

This is why raising the metaphysical question explicitly seems better that denying a priori that it is meaningful. It seems to me quite obvious that there are different ways of conceiving reality alongside the denial that there is anything beyond our language to which our language can refer. It also seems to me very clear that at least from the point of view of faith, our views on metaphysics are important. We should break the cultural taboo on such discussion.

Once we break that taboo, process philosophy has a good chance to make its case. When the seventeenth-century metaphysics that underlies most of what goes on in the university is brought fully to light as a metaphysics it does not fare well. Gradually the spell it has cast over the modern world can be broken. The inevitability of holding to some metaphysic may also become apparent. It may also be acknowledged that theistic metaphysics should be considered on a par with nontheistic ones.

These changes may sound rather simple. In fact they would be radical and revolutionary. I believe Christian faith has a stake in such a revolution.

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