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The end of dogmatic metaphysics



By the later fourth century the Western tradition had become committed to realistic philosophical theism.

It needs to be said at once that the marriage of faith with philosophy was never entirely problem-free and happy. On the contrary, the difficulties that were eventually to bring down philosophical monotheism were recognized by some from the outset. If God is a simple, infinite, necessary Being, he must fill everything. Where is there "room" for anything else to exist that is distinct from or independent of God? How can God so defined be related to the manifold contingencies of a changing, temporal, created world? How can God be thought of as personal, or be described in our language? And if God is so infinitely and overwhelmingly our one great end in life, our be all and end all, must he not annihilate all other cultural concerns?

Considering these and similar questions, and considering also how completely we have become committed to a thoroughly postmetaphysical view of life, we may well wonder how the old metaphysical sort of belief in God ever got to seem as compelling and as clear as it did.

The answer is that philosophical belief in God did not stand alone. It was surrounded by, embedded in, and sustained and given intelligibility by a whole raft of deep assumptions, most of which came ultimately from Plato. These assumptions were the so-called "absolute presuppositions" (R. G. Collingwood's phrase) of the old Western culture. We just didn't know how many and deep they were; but gradually, between Descartes and Derrida, they were brought to light by the new critical kind of philosophy. Once they were exposed, the question arose of whether they could be proved. Kant tried to show that they could be proved, some of them at least, but only in a way that involved giving up the old metaphysics of God. Instead of being objective truths propping up an objective God, Kant made them into just structural presuppositions and postulates of our knowledge and our moral action. Others, however, though they admire Kant's great attempt to find a compromise, judge rather that the old platonic assumptions collapsed and crumbled to dust as soon as they were exposed to the light. As soon as we could see them, we could see that they are groundless.

But what were the assumptions? Occasionally we hear something said that gives us a glimpse of their continuing influence. We should seize such a moment and analyze what we hear.

For example, when some years ago the senior Fellow in my college died, his successor as senior leaned toward me across the table and said in a strange harsh voice, a little grim, sardonic, triumphant, emphatic, fearful, and even envious: "Well, he knows now, doesn't he?"

Those words are a window. I thought about them for a few days, analyzing them backward, and came up with this:



1. Truth is not manufactured by us; it is discovered by us, or discovers (the Latin vela, "veil," gives us the word re-veals or un-veils) itself to us.

2. The answers to all properly framed questions, both questions of fact and questions of value, preexist out there, objectively.

3. There is a great and final Answer to the mystery of our existence, out there, awaiting us.

4. All these truths and answers (2, 3) are, so to say, tailored to our faculties and our requirements. They are in principle accessible and intelligible to us, so that we may reasonably hope and expect to discover them, or have them reveal themselves to us.

5. There is then something quite dazzling, namely, a preestablished harmony between thought and being, language and reality; between the questions we want to ask and the Answer that the nature of things is waiting to give us. (Notice that this most astonishing doctrine is also the one most profoundly taken for granted.)

6. The final Answer will be revealed to us in or through death.

7. Our life is a pilgrimage toward death, the moment of truth, the moment of absolute knowledge.

8. Our life is a journey, then, from

a) the relative to the absolute; from

b) time to eternity; from

c) the changing, sensuous world of becoming to the realm of pure timeless intelligible Being; from

d) the particular to the universal; and from

e) the mediated, discursive, through-a-glass-darkly sort of knowledge, to pure face-to-face unmistakable vision.

9. Each person's life is a story scripted beforehand, and there is a great Story of Everything whose plot has been revealed to us in a Book.

That is in outline the world view, the story about the meaning of life, that my old friend was invoking at the lunch table. But this was the early 1980s, and he knew as well as anyone that every bit of it is questionable. He drew the grim, sardonic tone of his voice from the thought that death can still be relied upon anyway to settle the matter for each one of us in our turn. (He is now dead himself, so the matter is settled for him.)

That is by the way, for the moment. In #8 I introduced a number of binary contrasts. They came up while we were thinking about the difference between the way things are on life's journey and the way we hope they'll be when we get to life's destination. They are contrasts between two worlds, the earthly and the heavenly:


The Binary Contrasts

10. The binary contrasts (in #8, a-e), and a number of other related contrasts, are all analogously asymmetrical.

11. In each of the cases cited, the second of the pair:

a)  is prior;

b) is superior (that is, greater in both value and reality, and therefore standard-setting); and

c) in some way governs or produces or brings about the first.

12. Thus the spiritual world above is in every way better and greater than this material world below..


Being and Value

13. There are degrees of reality, and of value.

14. The scale of degrees of being is also a scale of degrees of value, or goodness, or perfection.

15. The Most Real is therefore the Most Good, and vice versa: for the Highest Good is-has to be-the Supreme Reality.

16. To gain the highest knowledge, we must purify our souls and perfect ourselves; and one should, in particular, prepare for death.

We should add here a few of the principal causal maxims:



17. Ex nihilo nihil fit ("Out of nothing, nothing comes to be").

18. Every change has a cause; or, every thing that is has a cause of its being.

19. The cause is prior to the effect; the cause is responsible for, or accounts for, the effect.

20. The cause is superior in reality to the effect.

21. The qualities that are found in the effect preexist in a higher degree in the cause.

So the cause-effect relationship is modeled on the father-son relationship, as that was perceived in a traditional agri-cultural and patriarchal society. Every effect is a chip off the old block, and every created thing is a finite refracted image of its cosmic creator-Father.

For our present purposes we don't need to go into more detail here, but one final proposition is worth adding. Eastern thought is often therapeutic. It says that we are made unhappy by the violence of our own disorderly passions. When we have slowed down and our passions have become still, we may find complete happiness in a state of cool emptiness: sunyata sunyata. By contrast, in Western thought the supreme good is a cognitive state, and a state of fullness rather than emptiness. We are absorbed in contemplation of, or are swallowed up into, an infinite and eternal perfection and fullness of Being.

22. Our last end is the absolute knowledge of what is greatest, most real, and most perfect; a knowledge in which we shall enjoy eternal happiness.

Now we see why Nietzsche describes Catholicism as "platonism for the masses" and why, at an even later date, A. N. Whitehead could describe the whole history of Western thought as "footnotes to Plato": because so long as the deep assumptions (or most of them) remained in place, philosophical belief in God seemed perfectly natural and intelligible.. And conversely, as in the work of the major critical philosophers (Descartes, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida), the old assumptions of Western, or "platonic," metaphysics have been brought to light and have crumbled away, so the credibility and even the very intelligibility of God have steadily faded away.

As we leave Plato behind and the culture becomes "post-Philosophical" (Rorty 1982, pp. xxxvii ff.), God evaporates. The God of realistic philosophical theism, the metaphysical God, the super-Being out there, was made possible by Plato, and dies with him. But the process is not quite complete. There are still a few philosophical platonists, and in everyday conversation we may still hear people making the contrast between the material world and a distinct spiritual dimension. It remains possible (as Kant, Wittgenstein, and Derrida all suspect) that Plato's ghost will never be finally exorcised, and people will always be tempted by the illusions of metaphysics. In which case the battle between nonrealists and realists over God will never end.

Excerpt from After God. The Future of Religion, HarperCollins Publishers, New York 1997, p. 57-62.

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