So I’m working on the book (it’s going terribly; thanks for asking!) and I had an outline that I felt pretty good about. The conceit of the book was to try to find a few things that progressive Christians might say in common that would provide a path forward for those who are just beginning to deconstruct. I decided not to include ideas that were not common ground, knowing that my personal views move far left of many of my progressive friends. So I’m not planning to talk about process theology or weak theology or (a)theism or anarchy. (I’m hoping that can be a second book, perhaps called A Handbook for Heretics: Next Level. We’ll see.) However, I am finding that some of the things I don’t want to talk about keep coming up as we discuss the project in church. I don’t know how that will affect the book, but I wanted to address one thing here. Metaphysics. I said in my comments on Sunday, as a side note, that I was anti-metaphysical.
The topic was sin and the traditional view that some soul-wound is passed down from Adam and Eve to us. This is called “the condition of sin.” The cure for this condition is the Cross. In my experience, Evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity is concerned primarily with this condition. While there is plenty of judgment to be had for our personal behavior – and almost no attention paid to injustice – the really critical thing is to be saved, to have this soul-wound healed, so that we can go to heaven instead of being damned to hell. In that context I suggested that this was a metaphysical wound and a metaphysical cure. That is, we have no experience of either, so our experience of this healing transformation is a non-event.
The metaphysical is, very simply, beyond the physical. It cannot be known through our senses. Now, I would say that this means it’s not really real. It’s something we construct out of our sense experience; it’s an abstraction. It’s a useful abstraction because we need ways to talk about ideals like love and courage, things that are certainly real, but we know them by our experience of them. An idealized love is forever off in the distance, over the next horizon; it’s an abstraction.
However, in Platonic philosophy, which Christianity adopts in large part, the metaphysical is what’s really real. A table is a table, not because we experience it as a table or talk about it as a table, but because it participates in the essence of tableness. Love is love, not because of how we love one another, but because there is a ideal, pure love in which any act of love participates. We know love because we know the essence of love. More importantly, the more we know of the essence of love, the more we are able to act lovingly. So, the metaphysical ought to turn us back toward the physical.
In my experience, this is not how it works in Evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. The primary concern is for the salvation of the soul, a metaphysical entity that is more real than the body that contains it. The body is ephemeral, but the soul will endure. Consequently, whatever happens to bodies is of little concern. In fact, in some Christian traditions, it has been thought that the suffering of the body is the key to the salvation of the soul. This is how people can understand themselves to be loving while throwing their 14-year-old queer kid out on the streets. It’s their soul that matters, not whether they have a roof over their head or food to eat or they’re raped or trafficked or get addicted to drugs. Metaphysics is at the root of the abortion debate – a baby’s soul is more important than a mother’s body. Metaphysics is at the root of the animus toward transgender people – not only is male and female a part of the nature of things, but each of us has a male or female essence signified by our genitals. Our experience, our knowledge – even what we do – does not matter as much as the metaphysical reality that is at stake.
So, I am anti-metaphysical because I find it intellectually unsatisfying. The idea that there are these unseen entities that are more real than what is sensible, just doesn’t make any sense to me at all. But I’m also very concerned about the ethical consequences if we play it out to its logical conclusion. I think Evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity have done that and we should take it as a cautionary tale.