I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire…I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.
~William Faulkner, from The Sound and The Fury
On this day, February 16th in 600 AD, Pope Gregory the Great decreed the words “God bless you” as the proper response to a sneeze. Now you know. Well, maybe you know. That’s a popular story anyway, and it stems from the myth and lore surrounding the nature of the common sneeze including things like the momentary stopping of the heart and even a quick expulsion of the soul. Superstition often steps up when the truth is murky.
So, what is real? It’s a simple question, isn’t it? The answer – well, that’s simple too, but you must be prepared to accept it. God defines reality. Most of us would not argue with that in general, but only as long as it makes sense. You see, we are products of the modern age, and as such, we place reason as our highest authority. Our minds easily align with that which is reasonable to us.
The problem, of course, is that there is much in the universe we not only don’t understand but more so, can’t comprehend. When we try to live our lives by that which makes sense to us, we are playing a game of perception and illusion.
Truth is beyond methodology, agenda, and curriculum, each of which is subject to the shifting winds of popularity, fashion, and imagination. Though philosophical and theological speculations might be sophisticated and complex, they are worthless unless based on God’s revelation.
We are, of course, free to believe whatever we choose. Consequence is another topic.
D I G D E E P E R
WILLIAM FAULKNER AND METAPHYSICS
THE SOUND AND THE FURY was the first major novel by William Faulkner, published in 1929. The novel is set in Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, in the early 20th century. It describes the decay and fall of the aristocratic Compson family—and, implicitly, of an entire social order—from four different points of view. The first three sections are presented from the perspectives of the three Compson sons: Benjy, an “idiot”; Quentin, a suicidal Harvard freshman; and Jason, the eldest. Each section is focused primarily on a sister who has married and left home. The fourth section comments on the other three as the Compsons’ domestic servants, whose chief virtue is their endurance, reveal the family’s moral decline.
METAPHYSICS may be defined as the attempt to work out the most basic structure of reality, not by observation and experiment, as in science, but by systematic and critical thought, seeking to analyse, test and connect such concepts as ‘cause’, ‘quality’, ‘matter’, ‘mind’ and ‘event’. Metaphysicians may simply try to describe the form taken by our normal thought about the world when set out systematically; or, more often, to revise and improve on this, and, it may be, to demonstrate a reality behind the appearances. In the former class might be found such thinkers as Aristotle, Locke, and perhaps Thomas Aquinas, in addition to some contemporaries such as Sir Peter Strawson (b. 1919); in the latter class, Plato, Spinoza, Leibniz, Berkeley and Hume. Most metaphysicians have of course included elements of both these approaches; and some might hold, with R. G. Collingwood (1889–1943), that as the presuppositions of our thought vary over the years, even the first kind of metaphysics needs constant revision.
Some metaphysical systems, such as those of Hegel or Spinoza, were explicitly offered as substitutes for (and improvements on) traditional religious beliefs. Others, such as those of Thomas Aquinas, Descartes or Leibniz, while avowedly Christian, claimed that human reasoning was able to prove such religious truths as the reality and goodness of God, and so seemed, to some, to depreciate revelation (see Natural Theology). Accordingly, some theologians have wished to repudiate metaphysics altogether. And clearly there is no need for Christians to construct a metaphysical system, or accept an existing one. But many Christian concepts and beliefs involve metaphysical assertions, even when they are not argued for by metaphysical methods: the ideas of creation, miracle, spirit, revelation, grace and, above all, of God, all carry implications about the structure of reality, and may well need metaphysics, not for their discovery, but for explanation and defence. It seems a mistake therefore for the theologian to reject metaphysics completely. The truth of Christianity surely implies that some metaphysical systems (e.g. atheist or materialist ones) are false, and this suggests that some system—perhaps known only to God—is true; unless, indeed, with a few extreme radicals, we abandon the idea of supernatural truths and reduce Christianity to a way of life (while repudiating much of the beliefs and teaching of the Christ who founded that way). Whether in fact reason (with or without the aid of God’s revelation given to us) is adequate to work out the fundamental nature of reality can only be found out in practice.
Sources & Resources
A. J. Ayer, The Central Questions of Philosophy (London, 1973);
B. Blanshard, Reason and Analysis (London, 1962);
C. D. Broad, ‘Critical and Speculative Philosophy’, in J. H. Muirhead (ed.), Contemporary British Philosophy (London, 1924);
R. G. Collingwood, An Essay on Metaphysics (London, 1940);
I. Kant, Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics (ET, Manchester, 1957);
J. McTaggart, ‘Introduction to the Study of Philosophy’, in his Philosophical Studies (London, 1934);
D. F. Pears (ed.), The Nature of Metaphysics (London, 1957);
W. H. Walsh, Metaphysics (London 1963).
S.B. Ferguson New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000)