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What Happened to Metaphysics?

Wolfhart Pannenberg, for one, has pointed out the suppression of metaphysics in modern theology and philosophy by the prejudices of the contemporary age.

First, the concept of God which was developed by medieval and early modern theology in close contact with classical metaphysics is in need of rather radical revision…In reassessing the classical theological doctrine of God, it would be helpful to have a critical but not entirely negative discussion of the great metaphysical tradition of philosophy, including the philosophical doctrine of God, to relate to (Wolfhart Pannenberg, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co; reprint. 1992, 23).

Why the turning away from classical metaphysics? Though Kant wanted to make room for the realm of the noumenal, his penetrating critique of reason gave credence to the emasculation of the human mind to know a thing in and of itself, thus eliminating the hope in the ability of human cognitive power to discover the ground of the world. From here two main subsequent developments, particularly in Germany, ensued. The idealist direction took root in the previously mentioned Romantic climate, in which thinkers such as Fitche, Shelling, and Hegel sought for the ontological sphere in the cognitive and imaginative realms of the human mind. Again, the construal was that of metaphysical reality revealed through; and indeed identified with, the Divine Mind of man. This made the human mind not merely a pointer to Divine reality but was that reality itself.

The second direction post-Kant was that of a deepening relativism. Dilthy, Heidegger, Lévi-Strauss, Nietzsche, Foucault, Wittgenstein, Popper, Quine, and Derrida, and others— thoroughly eradicated any grounds for certainty relative to metaphysics, opting instead for general principles, none of which, however, were absolute, timeless or were interchangeable among the varied disciplines. An unintended consequence of Kant’s Copernican revolution left the postmoderns and hyper-relativists, regardless of their area of expertise, whether it be politics, science, religion, or philosophy, all groping for a standard for verification, as none could make claim to apriority. The result was a seeking after verification as varied as the world of culture, language, class structures, and existential contexts would allow.

Both directions are similar, insofar as both operate without timeless absolutes and thus both, regardless of their distinctive emphases, are sourced in a selfish a priori. In both, man is the measure of all things. The Romanticist looks within himself to find metaphysical reality while the relativist looks within himself in search for a standard from without. In either case both have as their starting points the Self.

The result of the turn from metaphysics, especially the biblical type, is that the prevailing outlook in philosophy and theology has turned toward despair. By this we mean that modern theology not only wants to address despair, but also it is rife with the very disease it seeks to alleviate.

For example, Kierkegaard’s way of conceptualizing religion in Sickness unto Death seeks to depose the reigning concept of philosophy established in Hegel, by displaying an alternative that can lead us to what the Enlightenment called the “individual.” Kierkegaard identifies the “sickness” as the often acute sense of privation one cannot help but feel as a result of failing to discover, as Kierkegaard coined it: “that unique individual” we are called to become. The polemical areas of the work, though identifying with specificity our acute sense of privation and need, take us wide of the mark in terms of a final solution. Though Kierkegaard seeks to replace the synthetic structure of Hegel’s approach, which envisions men as “a relation” in a broadly dialectical framework, with a call to see themselves as “a relating,” which accentuates how our being is already an activity, Kierkegaard ironically argues for a dialectic of consciousness, the stages of which are a lack of awareness of despair, leading to acute awareness of such, to demonic awareness of despair. Short of demonic despair, is the opportunity of escape once “a relating” roots itself in “the power which constitutes it.” This transmutation results in faith. But for Kierkegaard faith is not something attained in the final sense then grown, but one is always on the way toward faith. The power that constitutes faith enables us to acknowledgment that we are creatures of God who provides us a fresh paradigm for self-understanding. So it is that although Kierkegaard seeks a new form in theology he ultimately builds on the shoulders of Hegel a dialectical analysis of human despair.

Where his system fails is the fact that it is grounded in the power of despair which constitutes it. So we are confronted with a circular system: the identification of despair leading to a theology which takes from despair its own cure (Reference: The Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology, ed. Gareth Jones, Wiley-Blackwell, 2004, 42-44).

Paul Tillich also exploits the culture of despair and meaninglessness, to which he calls for a Christian response. He finds this answer in the symbols of the Christian message (See Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, London: Oxford University Press, 195, 40-51). From the existential question of the meaning of life, Tillich develops his theory of correlation, in which the theologian or pastor’s job is to articulate the symbolic meaning of the Christian message; that is, Christians symbols (e.g., Kingdom of God) so that the answer to the existential question is meaningful at the level of nature of the question (He develops the idea of correlation in his Systematic Theology, vol. 1, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951, 62).

The mutual reciprocity of existential question and theological answer via Christian symbols is what Tillich means by “correlation.” Tillich believed that the advantage to his approach was that it bypassed unasked questions, with which theology is easily absorbed (e.g., supernaturalism, angels, the omnipresence of God) and focuses on real life struggles and the quiet desperation most people feel. This, of course, requires a level of competency on the part of the theologian or pastor regarding current cultural and psychological trends, even moods predominant in the artistic, literary, and socio-political movements of the day.

However, we would be correct to question this procedure, for the terminology of symbol is insufficient to capture the power and personality of revealed truth in the Christian message. The phrase, “Kingdom of God” is not a symbol but a reality. His conception of God is not a personal being but also a symbol; in fact, God is the highest of the symbols of the Christian faith. He worried that to think of God as the highest being is to place him in the category of finitude. So God is being itself, beyond both being and existence. That God is the answer to human finitude and despair is implied by the fact that finite people can assert something meaningful about the infinite. The possibility for finitude to speak of infinitude is possible insofar as finitude participates in being itself (beyond being and existence), which means the possibility of the power of Christian symbols to intercede on behalf of the anxiety of doubt and meaninglessness and to provide a means toward true human concern with the ultimate—God.

The basic problem with Tillich’s formula is that it is contradictory: if God is beyond being and essence and we are centered in being and essence, then how can finitude participate in infinitude; indeed, how can any Christian symbol, which itself shares in finitude (the concept may be infinite but the language used to express the concept is finite), act as a mediator from despair to concern with the ultimate? Tillich recognized these problems and so he settled on the premise that the faith he called for is only possible by an act of courage, which recognizes the God beyond classical theism (God who can be spoken of in finite terms) as “the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt” (Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, 1952; reprint, Glasgow: Collins, 1979, 183).

Tillich’s effort to save his own system fails because human courage in finite, resulting in a drift back to the human dilemma of guilt, alienation, and despair. For if there is a bridge from despair to the ultimate it must lay in the agreement of knowledge and of being. For the object of knowing must not be so distinguished from the subject of knowledge that it is impossible for it to agree with the object to which it seeks to relate, otherwise there is no true recourse to the ultimate, only a illusion of philosophy. So again, as with Kierkegaard, we are faced with a circular argument, one that seeks an answer to despair only to return us to despair (The Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology, ed. Gareth Jones, Wiley-Blackwell, 200, 372-387).


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