Metaphysics and Theology
THURSDAY, MAY 7, 2020
I notice when teaching the works of Christian thinkers such as Athanasius, Augustine, and Hildegard of Bingen that something often mystifying to students is the metaphysical aspects of their thought. They have trouble grasping that God is not a being, but rather the Creator of All Being.
They have a similar difficulty understanding that evil is a privation of Being, so that when a creature turns away from God, he or she turns away from the Source of its very Being. Turning away in this way would be like a sunflower turning away from the sun. The sun would not need to send a solar flare to kill the sunflower as punishment. Without the sun, the sunflower would simply wither and die.
There is no setting any earthly good or any combination of earthly goods, no matter how vast or wonderful, over against God, because God is the Source of All Goodness. It would be like choosing a few golden eggs of various types and sizes over the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Now it is true, metaphysics is often difficult to wrap your mind around, so there are legitimate reasons my students would have trouble understanding the metaphysical underpinnings of these great theologians. But there may also be something else lurking, something more troubling.
Proclaiming that God is the Creator of All Being nails down the claim that the stories about “the Lord” are not just “stories” – stories about some divine figure in mythic time or in imaginative literature, such as the stories about Zeus or Apollo or Marduk or Odin. No, this is the God of the Real World, not just the God of imagination or of my subjective feelings about the world.
And that is hard to accept. It is like the difference between saying that the bread and wine of the Eucharist symbolize Christ (so we can say “we feel his presence among us”) as opposed to saying “He is present – as present to us in this church, here and now, as He was in upper room to Peter, James, John, and Thomas, whether we feel it or not.
His actual presence does not depend upon my perception of His presence. He was actually there in the church, bodily, whether I was aware of Him or not.
When we recognize that “the Lord” is the complete and continual cause of the Being of all that is, it is a fundamental category mistake to think of “the Lord” as though He were a “clockmaker” god who could create the universe, get it “ticking,” and then go away. “If the sun and moon should ever doubt, they’d immediately go out,” wrote the poet William Blake. The sun and moon cannot doubt, but if God ever did, then they and we would “immediately go out.” If God were not imparting Being to His creation at every moment, it would cease to exist.
The metaphysical dimension of theology tells us insistently that the Biblical stories are not just “stories” that do not touch upon the “really real.” “The Lord” is not just the “house god” of the Israelites, He is the God of all times and places, of every cosmos and all of history, because He is the Creator of All from Nothing.
With metaphysics, when done properly, you run headlong into the hard brick wall of reality, like saying that the bread and wine really are the body and blood of Christ. Or like saying that this flesh-and-blood man really was God incarnate, not just a “nice guy” who said some nice things. He is the Word, through whom all things were made, become flesh.
If you can’t accept the possibility that Christ can be really present in the Eucharist, fine, but then we might wonder whether you think God could be really present in a human person. Was Jesus really God incarnate? Or was he just that nice guy, maybe even a “holy” guy, but in the end, just a guy?
Because if Jesus was just a “good guy,” then in the end, he was simply swallowed up by an angry, meaningless universe, which is what is in store for us. So the sooner we admit it, the better. Jesus is either the Word made flesh, or Marx was right, and Christianity is “the opiate of the masses.” Nietzsche called the bluff on living in that illusion.
In this vast universe – the universe we really have, the “really real,” with all its vastness and complexity, its good and its evil, its beauty and its horrors – is there a meaning that encompasses all of it, and yet cares for me, this little person in some corner of an obscure planet at the edge of an immense galaxy? Who could possibly believe that? Christians who recite the creed at least say they do.
If Christianity is just a nice story to make people feel better, the problem is that it will only make you “feel better” as long as you’re convinced it’s true, not merely imaginatively, but really, with the reality of a brick wall or an exploding sun – real enough to stand up against exploding galaxies, spreading pandemics, and murdering Nazis. When something like a pandemic hits, you either believe in a God who has all things in His providential care, or you relegate “God” to that category in which you placed Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and Yoda: too good to be real.
The God of the Bible is not just a god, a “creator” in that Bible story, the way Zeus or Odin are characters in their stories. He is the God who is the Creator of the universe’s story – the Creator of everything that has existence: every quasar, every black hole, every galaxy, every quark, every neutrino, every cosmic force, and every person who ever lived. As C.S. Lewis once said: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
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Randall B. Smith is a tenured Full Professor of Theology. His book Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners is available from Emmaus Press. And his book Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture at Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary is due out from Cambridge University Press in the fall.