By Tyson James
One day, a close church friend asked me, “What is metaphysics?” Dr. Paul Gould notes in a previous article that local bookstores often locate the subject of metaphysics somewhere around tarot cards and astrology. It may be surprising, then, for some to learn that metaphysics is actually the name of a very important field in philosophy.
So, what is metaphysics to philosophers and what in the world does it have to do with Christianity? These are actually very important questions, since metaphysics is a subject which touches on some of the most fundamental elements of the Christian faith. The definition has changed over time because more and more areas of study have been added to what philosophers now consider metaphysics. Rather than giving a precise definition, it’s sometimes easier to get an intuitive grasp of the subject by pointing to some of the questions it seeks to answer. Here are some examples of metaphysical questions and why they are important for Christians:
● Is there a first cause? If so, what is it? Clearly, Christians have an interest in answering this question, since it is a doctrine of the faith that God is the first cause of all creation.
● Do we have free will? Are our choices causally determined by prior conditions? Both Christian and non-Christian thinkers have been wrestling with this question for thousands of years. Why? Because without free will, it’s difficult to see how humans can truly be held morally responsible for their actions. Since it is a Christian doctrine that sinners are held morally responsible for their actions, we have an interest in answering this question.
● Are there any unchanging truths? What truths depend on other truths and what truths cannot possibly be other than what they are? The Bible declares that God does not change, which in context means that he is essentially morally perfect and cannot go back on his word. If there are no unchanging truths, then it is not necessarily true that God is essentially morally perfect and cannot go back on his word.
● What are space and time? Christians maintain that God is in some sense everywhere and eternal. But what does that mean if we don’t even know what space and time are, much less understand how God relates to them? If it’s unclear how God can relate to space and time, then it’s also unclear how he can care for us and love us, since we exist in space and time.
● How do things which change maintain their identity over time? Christians believe that the same person who was a sinner may also accept Christ, be saved from his sins, and enjoy eternity with God. But some people say that there is no “self” which maintains identity over time, that we’re just collections of atoms which change every time an atom is gained, lost, or rearranged. So, answering this question is important for showing that the same person who is lost without Jesus may be saved and restored in Jesus.
● Is the physical universe all there is? Of course, for theists generally and Christians specifically, the physical universe is not all there is. So, if it turns out that Carl Sagan was right—that “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be”—then Christianity is false. The intellectually responsible Christian, then, will seek to show that there are good reasons for thinking that the physical universe is not all there is.
● Are the objective morals we seem to want to affirm real? In other words, is it true that some things are good or bad, right or wrong, independent of our individual or collective opinions? If so, what’s the best explanation for these objective morals? If they’re just illusions of consciousness or human inventions we create to bring about certain behaviors, then there are no morals which are objectively true, including commands like “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
As you can see, metaphysics isn’t just a curious and esoteric subject reserved for out-of-touch, ivory tower scholars. It’s an area of thought which reaches to the very core of Christianity. Sadly, though, many like my friend have never heard the topic discussed in a church setting, much less been taught how it relates to their faith. If we want our faith to be seen as a rationally viable option in an increasingly anti-Jesus culture, then we must interact with contemporary metaphysics and offer rebuttals where it purports to undermine Christian claims.
By way of historical example, in the first half of the 1900s, there was a view that became wildly popular, especially in philosophy and science, called verificationism. According to this view, the only things which could be said to have any meaning at all were those things which could be verified by our five senses, or that were true by definition. Of course, this would immediately do away with many things that Christians take to be true, such as the existence of God or the soul or angels or even love. It would also mean that historical claims like the resurrection were meaningless, since there’s no way to verify what actually happened with our five senses. However, philosophers were able to expose this view as bankrupt by noting that it failed its own test. The verificationist’s claim that “only that which can be verified by the five senses is meaningful”—that claim could not itself be verified by the five senses. With the fall of verificationism came a renewed interest in metaphysical questions, which itself has led to a great revival in Christian scholarship over the last 70 years. In other words, thank God for metaphysics!
In my own life, exploring answers to these questions has yielded a profound appreciation for God and the way our universe and our conscious experiences actually serve to magnify his greatness. For those of you who are seeking a greater understanding of God, yourselves, and the universe around you, I encourage you to explore the endlessly fascinating and important world of metaphysics, especially the amazing work done in this field by Christian philosophers and theologians.
There are hundreds of articles, podcasts, and videos on the questions of metaphysics available for free at our website: www.reasonablefaith.org.
—Tyson James is the Global Chapters Director and Director of Translations/Transcriptions for Reasonable Faith.