6 May

Discovering inherited metaphysical commitments

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 05/06/21

Andrew Davison on the importance for theology of becoming more philosophically self-conscious

On Volume 150 of the Journal, I talked with Andrew Davison about his book Participation in God: A Study in Christian Doctrine and Metaphysics. During that conversation, he mentioned an earlier book that he had written, The Love of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy for Theologians (2013). The Introduction to that book is titled “Why Study Philosophy?” In it, Davison writes:

“The Scriptures warn us not to be ‘taken captive’ through philosophy (Col. 2.8; cf. 1 Cor. 1.20–25). As an aid to achieving that end, this book makes a counter-intuitive proposal: our theology is less likely to be hijacked by philosophy if we pay attention to philosophy. We can be more philosophical in order to be more theological.

“We all operate within a philosophical framework. Philosophy, in this sense, is the position a person, culture or school of thought takes over what reality looks like and how its aspects fit together. Define philosophy this way, and every last person is a philosopher, and every last person has a philosophy. Everyone has a sense of how to think about time, knowledge, causation, justice and so on. There is an ‘architecture’ to the mind. As John Stuart Mill put it, the mind has ‘furniture’. We may not be able to articulate these assumptions in any systematic way, but we have assumptions nonetheless. By and large, English-speaking cultures do not provide much space for us to think about these matters. It would be different if we lived in France or Iran, two countries where philosophy is prized and philosophical books sell in large quantities.

“The Christian theologian will want his or her framework to reflect a Christian vision of the world, and unexamined philosophical presuppositions determine our outlook even more than examined ones. Unexamined presuppositions are the ones that it does not cross our mind to question. Fergus Kerr has described the consequences:

“‘if theologians proceed in the belief that they need neither examine nor even acknowledge their inherited metaphysical commitments, they will simply remain prisoners of whatever philosophical school was in the ascendant 30 years earlier, when they were first-year students’ [from Theology after Wittgenstein, SPCK, 1997].

“‘When the existence of metaphysical commitments is ignored or denied, as Kerr goes on, ‘their grip only tightens.’ I can think of two theological books, whose titles I shall pass over, where the clinching move in the argument comes straight from Hegel. The author’s conclusion, ultimately, does not rest on theological sources but upon Hegel’s conviction that a cycle of tension and resolution lies in the heart of things. Neither author wrote ‘as Hegel would say’ as part of his argument. Indeed, if either had, he might have questioned whether Hegel’s metaphysics should be given such sway.

“This book takes a historical approach. Familiarity with the history of philosophy is useful, if only as a reminder that ideas have a history. However much an outlook today appears obvious to us, it has a heritage. At other times, people thought otherwise, and because we each receive our philosophical heritage in a different way, other people will think otherwise even in our own time.

“We cannot take ourselves outside of philosophical tradition, if for no other reason then that we cannot get outside of language. In the words of Michael Polanyi: ‘The practice of speech in one particular language carries with it the acceptance of the particular theory of the universe postulated by the language.’ We can, however, think critically about where we stand and what we take for granted. Polanyi’s comment need not be fatalistic. ‘Language’ here means something more specific than English, French or Lithuanian. We can all ‘learn to watch our language’, so that ‘our metaphysical inclinations are laid bare’, to quote Kerr again, and start to refine it where necessary. We will do that when our philosophy is prayed through alongside readings from the great theologians, mystics and activists of Christian history. Theology can bend our philosophy into new shapes. This is part of taking ‘every thought captive Christ’ (2 Cor. 10:5).”