Christian Universalism: The Problem of Metaphysics

“It’s not easy to say what metaphysics is.”

So begins the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on metaphysics.

The Mighty Wikipedia sayeth,

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:

  1. “What is there?” and
  2. “What is it like?”

The reason I’m confronting this issue right off the bat in my series on The Possibility of Christian Universalism is because I think most of us in the West are caught between the biblical classical world, steeped in myth, and the postmodern world, after the “death of metaphysics.”  I’m also chastened by David Opderbeck’s comment on last week’s post, in which he wrote,

…the entire conversation is loaded or moot or something if you want to rule out “metaphysics” tout court. I mean, if you “reject metaphysics,” then there is no point to having this conversation, or any conversation, at all. Nobody who believes he actually exists in some reality can “reject metaphysics” because there is no such thing as actuality or existence or belief or reality without “metaphysics.”

What David is accusing me of, I think, is “self-referential incoherency.”  That is, to claim that “metaphysics is false,” or “metaphysical statements are meaningless,” are themselves metaphysical statements.  They beg the question (in the actual meaning of this phrase, not how you hear it used in common parlance.)

This is nothing new for me, for it is the foremost problem in postmodern (anti-)logic.  E.g., “You say there’s no truth, but saying that is in itself a truth claim.”  The same thing goes for statements about reality.

So maybe David has a point.  For me to attempt to deconstruct metaphysics here might be a losing battle.  So let’s just leave it at this: a premise of this series of posts is that I have a very weak view of metaphysics, based primarily in my conviction that the human mind is finite and only able to grasp a very small percentage of what is really going on in being and in the world (cosmos).

Next up: Is a belief in Hell premised on an ancient cosmology?

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  • re: metaphysics and truth claims, i like the way that Derrida put it:
    “The truth is there is no Truth”
    It only makes sense in the written form, being that (T)ruth refers to the all-encompasing knowledge detatched from contectuality. But he does not deny there are truths; he only denies we can know all of them. MacIntyr does much the same when he describes truth claims as contextualized in a culture, but it’s important to note that no serious postmodern philosopher devolves into *total relativism (so far as i can see). In fact, relativism is the very thing MacIntyr is arguing against in his Postmodern ethics (although he claims the title neo-Aristotelian).

    In the same way that postmodern does not equate to “anti”modern, i like to emphasize that postmetaphysics does not equate to “anti”metaphysics. Instead, there is more generally a healthy skepticism of metaphysics

  • It makes sense to me that every pastor should end his/her sermon with the words, “But I could be wrong.”

    There should be no hesitation in acknowledging the limits of human knowledge while still affirming what one believes to be true.

  • I agree…as humans we can only take in a mere fraction of the reality that really is. Given that, we still should strive to understand as much as we can…think big…and go outside of the box with our hypothesis. I think the more that we recognize our illusions, attachments and how our egos contribute to the illusions and attachments we have, the more clearer reality becomes. Our experiences in the present moment, and not our interpretations of them but the experiences themselves, is the true reality. When we start to see the objective interconnectedness we have with the world around us, we start to open up to realizing more possibilities and adopt a more in depth view of reality.

  • The world hasn’t changed. The way we talk about it has.

  • I like your allusion to the “you say there’s no truth, but that itself is a truth claim.” This “Road-Runner technique” as Geisler arrogantly calls it, is one of the most frustrating unbased language games I’ve ever heard.

    I resonate with your “weak view of metaphysics.” It’s as though more modern-thinking Christians can’t think of possibilities outside of their own accepted norm. Just because one doesn’t accept a particular metaphysics doesn’t mean they have rejected the whole enterprise. So, your metaphysics–I believe in some kind of metaphysics, just not the one that has traditionally been held–makes sense.

  • Nate T

    I may be a bit slow, but would you do me a favor and define the terms. What do you exactly mean by Christian Universalism (or Universalist Christianity)? Are you exploring the idea that there are many paths to God or that everyone ends up in heaven?

  • Looking forward to this series… Something i’ve been exploring for awhile now.

    I would like to be more specific with the term universalism… I am often called a universalist which I deny, but rather think of myself as a recreationist… Which many would say is the same thing with a different name. However i disagree.

    I think universalism makes claims of a physical place somewhere called heaven where everyone will end up one day. I reject the idea of a physical place somewhere else… But maybe this is neither here nor there and should be saved for one of your upcoming post.

    Again, looking forward to the discussion… Maybe something to discuss in our next cohort gathering.

  • Dan Hauge

    I may be wrong, but I am guessing that when you refer to your ‘weak view’ of metaphysics, you mean that you are very skeptical that the predominant classical Christian metaphysical set-up (heaven and hell as ‘places’, that a ‘soul’ goes to after one dies) reflects the actual ‘way things are’.

    (Or, would you go even farther, saying that the biblical picture of God as a being or ‘person’ that humans can relate to is itself mytho-poetic, and prefer a panentheistic view of God like Philip Clayton? I suppose that question is too far afield for the question at hand).

    It helps, I think, to clarify this, because it still seems to me that this universalist conversation has much to do with ‘what happens to human beings after death’ whether that means being resurrected, or just being with God somehow. I am not sure how one can have any kind of conversation about what happens to people after death without appealing fairly strongly to some kind of metaphysics, whether it be grounded in biblical language or not. Since none of us in this conversation have yet experienced it firsthand. I would argue that even claiming to be a strict materialist (which I am not saying you are) is a metaphysical position–it is a presupposition about the nature of the cosmos we live in.

    So, one key question is–how do we interpret biblical texts that speak to what happens to people after death? Do we take them as revealed descriptive information about ‘what actually happens’? Or, in taking them as myth, do we receive them as teaching some core truth about God’s eventual plan for creation, and how do we decide what that ‘core truth’ is, as distinct from the text’s ‘mythic framework’?

    So, of course belief in hell is premised on ‘ancient cosmology.’ For me the question is, can aspects of that ancient cosmology communicate truth about ‘the way things are’, or do we just assume outright that all aspects of ancient cosmology must be rejected (in favor of contemporary cosmology, I guess), and therefore have little or nothing to teach us? If we determine that descriptions of hell, or gehenna, or sheol, fall in line with ancient cosmologies (which they surely will) what then? Do we say “well, since we don’t believe in ancient cosmology anymore, we can safely shelve whatever the Bible says about these things”? How do we read the bible for revelation?

    Plenty o’ questions with no simple answers :).

  • Travis Ingels

    I am really looking forward to this series. I started thinking about this subject when I took a class in Evil and Suffering. I believe that the question of universalism is a question that must be asked of God when addressing theodicy. If Christians truly address the problem with God and evil then universalism becomes a very real possibility. While I am not sure about universalism I feel that at the very least as Christian we should have a hope for universal salvation. I am interested in how justice works into universalism. To me that is the better question is: How as Christians do we seek justice with a universal hope for all of creation to be redeemed in God?

  • John Edmonds

    Don’t be a dog chasing his tail. Universalism means talking about salvation, and Jesus, and Jesus as God, and God as omniscient, and then into repeating arguments about the finiteness of the God-Man.


  • John Edmonds

    “steeped in myth” What do you thing Global Warming is?

  • Truth only exists in community. There is no such thing as objective truth or individual truth. We must agree as a group that something is true. You can talk in circles all you want, use a fancy philosophical argument, or assert yourself to be the right person. You can call the sky green, but unless a whole lot of people agree with you, it won’t be true. And if they did agree, green would simply become the word to describe the way we perceive the sky to be colored.

    Ooops, I did make a mistake. There is such a thing as objective truth, but it’s simply what the most powerful people happen to say is the right thing.

    In terms of individual truth, you can believe something in your heart, but until you voice it and it resonates with others you won’t really know it to be true. How useless would Christianity be if it was ONLY something nice (or even the most important thing) that we believed in our hearts as individuals? Yet this is pretty much the primary straw man that stands in the way of Universalism.

    I think metaphysics is a mind game played by those who operate in the world of philosophy, a world which has successfully separated the head from the body. It’s entertaining to watch talking heads, but what practical use is it, really?

    • Chris

      “Ooops, I did make a mistake. There is such a thing as objective truth, but it’s simply what the most powerful people happen to say is the right thing.”

      If only powerful people saying it makes it objective then *objective* is devoid of meaning. If all the powerful people in the world say the sky is green and a single blind man stands up and says it’s blue then who is telling the objective truth? You can spin all day long about how for all intents and purposes it’s the power brokers, communities, or language games that determine truth, but most reasonable people will recognized that as obfuscation and muddled thinking.

      Objective/propositional truth matters, in this and all possible worlds.

  • jane smith

    What’s worrying me about this thread is that we westerners are so thoroughly caught in the trap of empiricism that we are incapable of recognising our plight.

    Metaphysics is terribly serious. If we want an example of someone who rejects metaphysics, then we can do no better than to read Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett etc. and decide whether we want to live in their world.

    To be a Christian (or, indeed, a Moslem or observant Jew) is to endorse a metaphysical worldview.

  • Dawkins’ and Dennett’s rejection of metaphysics isn’t honestly come by, however. Their positivistic empiricism is, ultimately, a metaphysical criterion, and one which is self-refuting, because the superiority of empiricism is not an empirical claim.

    A better example of a “weak” view of metaphysics would be Ludwig Wittgenstein or Richard Rorty, and I think it is more in that tradition than in Dawkins’ or Dennett’s that Jones wishes to work.

  • jane smith

    Dear Cole (and others who may be interested)

    I quite agree with you: Dawkins and Dennett’s position is, indeed, self-refuting. Some of these clever atheists aren’t as clever as they think they are :)! And it’s revealing that Dawkins pooh-poohs not only theology, but also philosophy.

    Can you, or Tony Jones, spell out for the rest of us what you mean by a “weak” metaphysics, giving some clarifying examples? Tony Jones seems to suggest a link with personal uncertainty.

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  • RD

    Jane, check out Jack Caputo (or Derrida) for a “weak” view of metaphysics.

  • Dean Reynolds

    Hi there
    This question is very interesting to me and the congregation I am a part of, in Cambridge Uk (a Unitarian and free Chrstian congregation) I think if we do want to abandon metaphysics and it seems like there are many good reasons to do so, we must develop a kind of weak thought as proposed by people like Gianni Vattimo. Everything we then wish to affirm has become an assertion either privite or collective and nothing more.
    In a sense:
    we do not agree because we have found an underlying truth,
    but we say we have found an underlying truth because we agree.
    therefore the values of pluralism and democracy can become more valuable not for finding the Truth but for ensuring that as many truths as possible can be explored by different communities.

    Can Christianity give up its claims to the ‘Truth’ and still carry authenticity in following Jesus? I hope so!

  • Greetings,

    I’m the minister of the Unitarian and Free Christian church in Cambridge (UK) that Dean Reynolds mentions in his earlier comment.

    Firstly, thanks to Tony for the original post – sorry I’m so late to the conversation.

    I’d like to add a point to the initial posting about deconstructing metaphysics. In his book “The Remains of Being: Hermeneutic Ontology After Metaphysics” Santiago Zabala, taking his cue from Heidegger, stresses that metaphysics cannot be overcome (überwindung) because it has so shaped how we talk about and look at the world. Instead he thinks the way forward is to finding ways to incorporate, twist or weakening those same aspects of metaphysics so they can be worked through (verwindung) to get to another kind of understanding of being. The point is, of course, to weaken metaphysics in a helpful and creative way – something which Gianno Vattimo and John D. Caputo have tried to do with, respectively, their “weak thought” (il pensiero debole) and “weak theology”.

    As Heidegger himself said: “Overcoming is worthy only when we think about incorporation” (M. Heidegger: “Overcoming Metaphysics” in the End of Philosophy, trans J. Stambaugh, New York, Harpur and Row, 1973, p. 91).

    Warmest wishes,


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