Metaphysics without God

Metaphysics without God December 14, 2018

In his monograph on Divine Simplicity, Steven J. Duby discusses the relation between metaphysics and dogmatics. He writes,

“In addition to Thomas’s metaphysics, the metaphysical works of Bartholomaus Keckermann, Johann Alsted, and Johannes Maccovius provide guidance here. For Keckermann, metaphysics is ‘the science of being [entis], or of a thing [rei] absolutely and generally accepted. It is therefore ‘first philosophy.’ It concerns ‘being’ (ens, or ‘that which is’ and ‘that which has essence’) or a ‘thing’ (res) as such. In treating ens qua ens, metaphysics plots its divisions, principles, modes, relations and so on, Similarly, Alstead defines metaphysics as wisdom concerning ‘being [ente] insofar as it is being.’ Metaphysics handles being ‘reduplicatively,’ taking it according to just its formal reason qua ens, while logic handles being ‘specifically,’ modifying and restricting being with various predicates. Metaphysics focuses especially on ‘real being’ (ens reale) yet as ‘abstract,’ while other disciplines prescind and contemplate one cross-section of it. Likewise, Maccovius takes metaphysics as a ‘contemplative science, which treats of being [ente], as far as it is being.’ Its object is ‘being in general’ (ens in genere) or as a quasi-genus'” (60-1).

These comments, Duby says “delimit the discipline of metaphysics” (61). Color me dubious. Without further explanation and definition, these brief descriptions leave nothing delimited.

In any case, Duby’s question is to ask how metaphysics so defined related to theology. His answer is: “Instead of subsuming God under the categories of metaphysics, they promptly locate God outside the bounds of metaphysics. He quotes Keckermann: “The metaphysician does not  treat of God as a metaphysician. For God is still something beyond being” [supra Ens]” (61). Maccovius finds some room for God in metaphysics, but only “by the mode of a cause” (61). Metaphysical concepts can be applied to God only after they “first pass through the filter of the biblical Creator-creature distinction” (62).

Duby goes on to say that for these writers metaphysics is a handmaiden to theology; the relation is not a symmetrical one. With that I have no quarrel, but I do think the whole enterprise, as Duby describes it, is off-kilter from the start.

I can make the point simply: Is a “thing as such” a created thing? If so, it implies a Creator. Who or what is that Creator? Is “being considered in itself” dependent? On whom or what? With all due regard for the Creator-creature distinction, it doesn’t allow us to analyze the creation without reference to the Creator. In fact, the error of trying to “delimit” the scope of metaphysics creates the problem of theological language. If you didn’t start with a metaphysics that worked within the horizon of creation, you wouldn’t need to puzzle over how metaphysics relates to what- or whomever is over the horizon.

Duby goes on to discuss Bruce McCormack’s proposal that theologians resolve “never to speak of God on any other basis than that of the incarnation” (63). That “basis” language is very unclear, but I would also appeal to the incarnation: Does metaphysics recognize that created being is capable of receiving the Word? If not, then it’s wrong about created being. If so, then it’s not delimited anymore.

I’m put in mind of Jenson, as I often am, but with a twist. Jenson urged theologians to carry on the work of evangelizing metaphysics. I worry that Duby has set the rules of the game so as to make metaphysics impervious to evangelization.

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