For and Against Classical Metaphysics

In my review of McCormack on Barth, I noted some key weaknesses in classical metaphysics.  Further, in a recent essay on a Post-Augustinian Western model of the Trinity, I highlighted those weaknesses in the thought of Gregory Palamas.  While I will continue to point out those weaknesses and in particular where Palamas torpedoed his own ship, it must be acknowledged that it is a very beautiful system.   One of the most powerful essays on classical metaphysics from a Christian perspective is by Fr Matthew Raphael Johnson.  He writes,

The unredeemed see objects/attributes are mere givens, each containing some force, some sort of “pull” over the will. A woman, to the lower human, is merely an object for sexual attraction or some form of sexual exploitation. For the ascetic, the curves of a woman are the “form” of human beauty, the manifestation of God’s will for man, the Eros of the love and beauty of God manifest in the human form. There is no “passionate” pull on the ascetic’s will (at his best), but rather, the curves of a woman, or the red of an apple, or the color of the sky, are manifestations of God, His Will, His Beauty and His Love. They exist as universal ideas rather than brute objects in space and time…

A virtue is a structure of behavior (or a “rule” of life) that permits the ascetic to ascend to God in the sense of seeing the universal in the particular, or the “spirit” that is hidden under the colors and sounds of fallen nature…

Asceticism liberates the will, and brings it above the world of objects and into the world of universal truth and reality, that of spirit, objects reflecting the will and love of the creator rather than as means to (temporary) fulfillment of the individual’s will. Objects are not abandoned, but radically transformed as the fulness of their being is revealed. This is the concept of “transfiguration.”…

while the Platonist wishes to live among the world of forms, the universal nature of things, things as seen by the mind, rather than by the sense. Of course, the ancients were only able to reach so far into this world without the life of grace. Only the later ascetics were able to provide the “content” to the purely formal world of Plato’s. This content is shown in the lives of the Orthodox saints: the seeing of visions, the attraction of wild animals, the ability to predict the future, the ability to see inside a person, all of this is the heightened perception of the ascetic life, the life where the dead weight of objects are transfigured into the life of the universal, the form, the mind of God..

We have to admit this is very beautiful.  We must also concede that many Orthodox mystics did have this kind of “power” over animals. Still, what to make of it as a theological system?  I cannot escape several nagging thoughts:

  1. Satan told Eve that “ye shall be as God,” implying among other things a transcending of human limitations.  Was pre-Adamic humanity compromised by “earthly limitations?” A good anthropology, by contrast, will say that man was created good.
  2. There is a truth to the point repeated actions create good habits.  Still, the emphasis on natural virtues swings dangerously close to Pelagianism.
  3. Praying for the departed raises problems:  is it really appointed to man once to die and then judgment?  To reduce it to a simple question:  is there a second chance after death?   For what was Origen condemned?



8 comments on “For and Against Classical Metaphysics

  1. John says:

    Per #3:

    No Orthodox author that I have ever read has advocated that the prayers for the dead give them a second chance to convert. In fact, most have frankly stated that we don’t know exactly how our prayers help them in any definitive manner and all have denied that there is a possibility for second chance conversion. Of course, I’ve not read every Orthodox author so it’s quite possible that you’ve picked that up from someone else (if so, reference please?). So there is no contradiction between Orthodox praxis and the above quoted verse from the Scriptures. Perhaps, though, I am missing something in the quote you provided or another author?


    • Olaf's Axe says:

      I know. I really wrestled with this issue for several years. I read everything Fr Seraphim Rose wrote on it, plus Augustine’s *On the Care of the Dead.* Still, one has to wonder what is the point of praying for the dead if the final status is not changed.

  2. Craig says:

    “There is a truth to the point repeated actions create good habits. Still, the emphasis on natural virtues swings dangerously close to Pelagianism.”

    I think I understand where this *could* come close to Pelagianism. In fact, I imagine this is the attraction to ritualism, for some. Seems like there are two sides (at least) to ritualism:
    1) attempting to “work” oneself into holiness, 2) detached motions to which the individual imputes “magical” qualities.

    So, on the one hand, someone tries to “make up” for their sins, on the other, someone relies on a mechanical operation to facilitate moral betterment.

    In both cases, there’s no attention given to the Holy Spirit. Part of me wonders if this tendency toward the “ritualistic” physicality of faith actually tends toward an antiphysicality – as if mediation is necessary *for God* so as to prevent Him from being soiled by our physical bodies. On the one hand, God can’t come into “contact” with someone because of man’s (elements of truth, but not complete) so he “works” his way to being clean. On the other, someone relies on a mechanism as if God cannot come into “contact” with us and *He* needs mediation.

    I wonder if there is a helpful “hybridization” between thoughts from Peter Leithart and James K.A. Smith to avoid some of these pitfalls.

  3. Craig says:

    On the one hand, God can’t come into “contact” with someone because of man’s sin

  4. Daniel says:

    I actually really enjoyed this one. I wonder why the Saints’ heightened “powers” (for lack of a better term) does not hold more weight with people. I also second the first comment by John.

    • Daniel says:

      Also, must you be so glib when dealing with theological and ascetical giants like Saint Gregory Palamas?

  5. Olaf's Axe says:

    I am not glib regarding Palamas. I think there are fundamental weaknesses in his system. That is no disrespect to the man.

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