By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERUQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – March 26, 2017) — For some, metaphysics is an outdated field of study, something that medieval scholastic philosophers and theologians dealt with; but surely doesn’t apply to us today. For others, the term metaphysics doesn’t even ring a bell, not even a basic tone as to what the term means. Still others may have heard of the term in school, usually along the lines of the Metaphysical Poets in English class (John Donne, George Herbert, and the like), but the actual word has little significance in a practical sense.
The general consensus among many is that, surely, something that is so antiquated and important to men and women in the Middle Ages can’t have practical application to us today — in our modern, technologically-driven world, can it?
I know a little about some of the above-defined sentiment; it once described me. Even with an interest in theology and ideas as a young person, the term metaphysics seemed strange, foreign — and let’s be honest — hard. It sounded like a term that I had to think deeply about, making my head hurt. And being candid, metaphysics can be a tough road to travel, requiring lots of cerebral training. Much like an athlete preparing for an Olympic event, metaphysicians have to train their mind to think logically and profoundly about abstract and inscrutable things of matter and meaning. It’s a rugged road, but well worth the journey.
And it’s because of this — the need to think deeply and deliberately — metaphysics is needed today: it can be a roadmap to mental and spiritual renewal in our contemporary world, particularly if taken up by younger men and women.
In a day and age where Millennials and Generation Z are less focused, self-obsessed, and let’s be honest — culturally confused — metaphysics can be a means to help them converge on a voyage of profound insight and implication , ultimately finding that the source of all being is God, and thereby discovering the truth in Christ. And just as important, the current generation, Z, will constitute 40% of all people.
Here’s how Dr. James Emery White states the future reality: “Generation Z will not simply influence American culture, as any generation would, they will constitute its culture.” And because the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow (constituting the culture), we need to train them to think deeply. In short, we need to train them—and all people for that matter — both physically and metaphysically (that which comes after, or goes beyond, the physical).
Why teach people to think deeply you may ask? It’s because it’s seldom being done today. True, people have access to facts and general understating (as any quick Google search will attest), but can they analyze, synthesize, harmonize, evaluate, and apply it: create original work and live it out practically?
In a day and age where one-hundred and forty words constitute the reading span of many (by the way, in 2015 the attention span was 8.25 seconds) , the need for thoughtful thinking is of the utmost importance, especially with various crises happening around the world, what I call the “Big Three E’s”: ecological, economic, and ethical.
So why study metaphysics and not something else like tolerance training? The simple reason is that metaphysics deals with the fundamental nature of reality — both physically and spiritually. Furthermore, metaphysics takes into consideration the whole person—body, mind, and soul, affirming the differing forms of being as understood through science, theology, ethics, and the like. In short, metaphysics deals with the exploration of truth found in any area.
As Joseph Owens points out in his book An Elementary Christian Metaphysics, the word metaphysics is of Greek derivation, originating with Aristotle. At its core, metaphysics came after primary philosophy (in modern terms — science and general learning), directing people to what comes after the physical; hence the word, meta, meaning “after.” And what came after the physical was the concept of being — our essence as humans and ultimate reality, asking what is the center of our existence as living creatures? This doesn’t mean that metaphysics doesn’t deal with the practical and physical — it does, but it also deals with those areas that transcend the physical, including the moral, the ethical, and the spiritual.
Owens summarizes it as thus: “Metaphysics means… a study of the supersensible (that which is apparent to the senses). It denoted a scientific investigation that in doctrinal order came after the study of sensible…physical things. These two aspects of the science, viewed against their historical background, were but the obverse and converse sides of the same notion.”
To put it simply, metaphysics deals with origins of both the physical and non-physical world — reality as we know it (the nature of being in the universe: time, space, knowing, substance, and cause). And for those who would quip that metaphysics has no part in reality, I would counter that it does. As a bird needs two wings to fly, so, too, do humans need two understandings of reality: the physical (as best understood through the sciences, humanities, etc.) and the metaphysical (being, essence, and the spiritual).
The metaphysical is all around us, such as altruism (the concern for the well being of others), faith (the belief and confidence in someone or something), and love (intense feeling and deep emotion). Why are these metaphysical characteristics used—and honed—by humans? And where did they originate? Though we try to explain the metaphysical in terms of the physical, we fall short in capturing its true essence. Why? Because these types of characteristics transcend the physical, they are abstract, non-physical!
It’s hard to test love in a laboratory or morals under a microscope. How would one analyze and dissect altruism in a meaningful way, beyond saying that it comes the amygdala, somatosensory cortex and anterior insula portion of the brain? Even mathematics has metaphysical properties. All of these qualities, ultimately, hold metaphysical and abstract meaning, requiring metaphysical investigation and learning. As one of the great metaphysician of the late Middle Ages — Thomas Aquinas — demonstrated, we need a top-down understanding of the universe (a big picture approach) rather then just a bottom up, from molecules to man). The truth is to be human is to be both physical and metaphysical.
In a general sense, metaphysics can be categorized in four overarching areas: being, essence, knowledge and spirit. With each area, just add the word “what” to it and you get a basic understanding of the field: What is being? What is essence? What is knowledge? And what is spirit? Of course there’s much more to metaphysics than just asking questions, but the questions asked in these four areas provide the foundation for further inquiry into each area, affording us intricate insight into our place in the universe as humans being.
Furthermore, metaphysics — properly taught and understood — can help answer the big question of life: Is there a God? Why is there something rather than nothing? What is human nature? What is right and wrong (ethics)? What is knowledge? What happens after I die? These and many more are some of the questions metaphysics helps answer, or at least provides a springboard for discussion. And when you think about it, these are some of the most important questions someone can ask in life. So why not take the time to answer the questions with integrity, conjoining both faith and reason in the equation, the physical and metaphysical.
French writer Joseph Jourbert said concerning metaphysics, “Logic works, metaphysics contemplates.” And though metaphysics can go beyond contemplation, his quote does demonstrate one thing very clearly: it illustrates that humans beings are more than just the hardwire of our physical nature, that of biology and the properties that govern it. Humans are also beings that contemplate, love, hope, help, have faith and compassion, a conjoining of differing modes of reality: body, mind, and soul. Or put another way, the physical and that which transcends the physical, the metaphysical. And it takes both physical study — through the sciences (what in Christian circles is called Natural Theology) and the metaphysical — through investigation of being, essence, knowledge, and spirit (in Christian circles called Theology or Biblical studies) to capture the essence of what it means to be human.
So rather than just an outdated Medieval subject of learning, my hope is that metaphysics will once again take its proper place in the minds and hearts of people throughout the contemporary world, particularly within a Christian context, countering the dumbing down of our total person—body, mind, and soul. In an age of unreason, my hope is that the interest in both the physical and metaphysical components of a person will help ignite our heart, illuminate our head, and inspire our hands.
To help you get the ball rolling in the study of metaphysics, here are some books for deep thinking (I list them as recommended order of reading):
Thomas Aquinas, Norman Geisler
Shorter Summa, Thomas Aquinas
An Elementary Christian Metaphysics, Joseph Owens,
For a more detailed study, here are some more for still deeper thought (again, I list them as recommended order of reading):
The One and the Many, W. Norris Clarke
Being and Some Philosophers, Etienne Gilson
The Beauty of the Infinite, David Bentley Hart
May God guide your mind in the study of metaphysics; Lord knows we need it in a world requisite of necessity.
Photo captions: 1) Thomas Aquinas by Norman Geisler. 2) Shorter Summa by Thomas Aquinas. 3) An Elementary Christian Metaphysics by Joseph Owens. 4) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.
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