Metaphysics & Absurdity

It is not always clear why metaphysical problems such as those revolving about the notions of cause, substance, the subject-object gap,body-mind interaction, etc., need to be discussed. The practical man has little interest in such matters, and, it may appear, can conduct his economics or politics or family life equally well without having to bother his mind about them.

That, I think, is not the case. Whether or not they are explicitly elaborated, every culture has presuppositions on these matters upon which it relies for its understanding of how to conduct just such affairs as economics, politics, and family life. These presuppositions are working in the background, unconsciously to most of us most of the time.

The Broken Image by Floyd Matson portrays this fact with respect to the earth-moving adjustments that have come about in the shift from l9th to 20th century views on such metaphysical matters.

Regardless of whether one metaphysical view can be proven over another, which one a person believes does make a difference in how he lives and relates to other persons. Cultures, like individuals, have their “unconscious” minds, that is, the generally accepted assumptions about the universe which are relied upon (hence not always consciously focused upon) in order to conduct the ordinary affairs of life (upon which we focus)[1].

The task of the theologian and philosopher, like that of the psychotherapist, is to be sensitive to these largely unaware-beliefs of the culture and bring them into light for critical examination. Few question that our culture is sick and in need of therapy and, some of us would add, repentance. As with psychotherapy, it sometimes helps to rehearse the historical development of the disease.

As I think can be shown, and as we intend to help show here, a healthy culture is one whose relied-upon images of reality are those of the Biblical doctrine of creation[2]. Any culture  which departs from these images is liable to serious distortion and disablement of its human relationships, whether economic, political, or romantic. The point of this introduction is to trace the philosophical undergirding (or dis-undergirding) of these disablements.

The name of the disease is “radical contingency”, that is, lacking self-sufficiency, yet inability to discover from where one’s sufficiency does come, or even whether there is a source for it at all. This disease of culture, from a Biblical point of view, is none other than the “death of God.” Since the late Middle Ages, Western culture has found itself increasingly unable to take consistently and seriously as a basic relied-upon belief the Biblical doctrine of creation.

The death of God is (in one of its aspects) the death of the Creator, for God in the Bible is above all else the creator of heaven and earth. Medieval man, insofar as he was Christian, perceived his essential relation with God to be that of creaturehood. The legacy of meaning, sense of fulfillment, direction in history, and morality which were founded on that vision of God began to die the moment the doctrine of creation began to give way by the late Middle Ages, slowly and incrementally, as the ultimate foundation stone of Western culture. Christian thought and practice became increasingly atonement rather than creation centered, leaving atonement only an impartial explanation.

It is believed by many and perhaps most people today that the development of science and technology has been more than anything else responsible for the “death” of God. Man now appeals to technology to do that for which he once prayed. The “God of the gaps” charge against believers relies upon the apparent steady devouring by the natural sciences of the ground previously occupied by religion as an explanation for the way things are. God, it is felt, remains only in those gaps not yet explained by science.

And it is felt, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, that man is coming of age, or, as per Freud, that man has abandoned the pleasure/comfort principle upon which religion was allegedly founded for the (for him) mechanistic, “drive” oriented reality principle upon which science he thought to be founded.

There is a curious contradiction, however, seldom noticed, between on one hand, the assertion that man is coming of age, which suggests that man is becoming more and more self-sufficient, and, on the other hand, the notion elaborated by the empirical tradition from David Hume to A. J. Ayer, and notably, by existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, that man is a radically contingent being. The first asserts that man is learning to get along by himself, the latter that man is inherently incomplete and inexplicable by himself. Absurd, as Camus says.

Furthermore, one asks just what “coming of age” might mean, having just finished the century in which we “mature” human beings, by the 1950’s, only half way through, savagely destroyed a greater percentage of the human race than any other whole century. And further, by the end of the century, we had destroyed more persons than had previously ex-isted in all prior centuries. This was done in almost every case by avowedly atheist/secular forces, and stopped by societies which still had at least a modicum of Biblical morality in their blood streams.

Bonhoeffer’s view is partly true. We were, in a sense, coming of age. The rise of science and the democratization of education and literacy had led to a kind of teen-age time of the human race, a leaving behind of the “parental” authority structures of State and Church to strike out on our own.

But though it progressed with confidant predictions of human triumph over the troubles of life, peaking around the end of the 19th century, it ran aground in the unparalleled human carnage of the 20th century. And, contra Freud, Western culture has embraced again the pleasure principle –with (what used to be called) “gay abandon”, and is steadily deteriorating in its scientific prowess.

The Church has, in large measure, lost it intellectual, moral, and spiritual way, and the power- and control-minded have gravitated toward the State to exert control over We, the People. The more we have “taken over” from God, the more we are losing control of our own freedom.

Hence the increasingly devastating absurd world of Albert Camus[3]:

I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. The world in itself is only not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world.

Intellectual, moral, and spiritual clarity are gone. There is little remaining public consensus in the West, intellectual, moral, or spiritual, and we are cast onto our waning personal resources.

So, the world may be indeed be inherently unreasonable. But in any case, it is certainly worth discovering what has made so many people like Camus think so, and whether that view might not after all be a tragic mistake. Maybe it is we ourselves who are unreasonable, rejecting our Biblical roots and consensus.

The collapse of the Biblical worldview in the West signaled retreat from our march into human adulthood. It is a principle of spiritual growth in Biblical religion that one can be an adult in the world only to the degree that he is first a child in God[4]. But we are (wrongly) convinced that childhood is something we grow out of, not into. We do not like being dependent and/or obedient, not even, maybe especially, on God.

Augustine replied to the pagans who blamed Christianity for the fall of Rome, that not so, that any nation which refused to submit to the purposes of God would sooner or later go under. It cannot perdure[5].

So we are discovering, yet once again, that ideas have consequences. What one believes on the metaphysical and cosmic level has enormous personal and social consequences in ordinary daily life.

If it is true that the smallest particles and the most primitive forces de-fine the nature of the cosmos in which we live (as contemporary secularized science is telling us), or if it is true rather that the nature of God defines the boundaries of our lives and meaning of our existence (as Judeo-Christians are telling us), then, either way, it would be good for us to know which of the two might be the truth, and just what those boundaries and rules might be.

Is there a way of making a rational decision between the two?



[1] For an explanation of the “unconscious” and how it functions, see Bibliography for Biblical Inner Healing, Chapter IV, The Warp in the Unconscious.

[2] More on this in Volume II, Yahweh or the Great Mother?

[3] Albert Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, p. 16. Vintage paperback.

[4] That I take to be the meaning of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:1-11 about being “born again”.

[5] In Augustine’s The City of God, arguably the first philosophy of history written.

Dr. Earle FoxDr. Earle Fox is IAI’s Senior Fellow in Philosophy of Science and the Worldview of Ethical Monotheism.

This article is an extract from Chapter 1 (section A) of Dr. Fox’s book A Personalist Cosmology in Imago Dei: Personality, Empiricism & God, Vol. I. See also Dr. Fox’s new Book Abortion, the Bible and America.

The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.

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