What reading metaphysics should be like

0268037078.01.LZZZZZZZKudos to Fr Aidan for sending me a copy of Norris Clarke’s The One and the Many (2001). I’ve read essays and chapters by Clarke and enjoyed him. Clear, easy to follow, well-informed, and – and this is what inspired this post in the first place – “godly.” I mean that in the classical sense of having an explicit awareness of God’s presence. I picked up on it earlier in Clarke, but not like I sense it in The One and the Many, which is a major philosophical work on metaphysics. Finding writers who are clear and genuinely helpful is rare. Finding one who makes it impossible for you to read without coming into an explicit awareness of the subject matter, whether God as so-named or God under any of his transcendental names (the Good, the Beautiful, the True), is priceless. You don’t get past the first chapter of Clarke without encounter his deep humility, his sense of dependence, and most of all, his infectious sense of ‘wonder’ (which, as we know, is the first true philosophical intuition), wonder that there is anything at all. Clarke doesn’t relay information. He shares an experience of the intelligibility and goodness of ‘being’. Come to think of it, I pick up this same sense of wonder when I read Hartshorne – and you can’t get any more non-Thomistic than Hartshorne!

Since I’m talking about Clarke for the moment, let me share a passage that slowed me down and brought me into this reflection:

Personal awakening to the wonder of being. To be a good metaphysician…one must move beyond the merely abstract understanding of the meaning of being toward an existential “awakening” to experience what actual existence means in the concrete for the whole person – mind, heart, imagination, feeling, all together. In the light of this intuitive experience one can then take reflective possession of its meaning, generalize it to the whole realm of actual existents, and develop it into the fully explicit metaphysical understanding of being as that which is. Various personal experiences have been found apt for leading us to such an existential awakening to what it means to be. Examples are:

1) The threat of loss of one’s own existence or that of a loved one: realization of existence through contrast with its absence.
2) And intense love experience: the wonder and delight that so and so is truly real.
3) Experience of an intense hope, longing, at last realized: “At last it’s real, not just a dream.”
4) The contemplative wonder of a child, a poet, an artist, or a scientist at the beauty and order of the universe, and, even deeper, at its presence at all.
5) A profound religious experience of gratitude for creation as gift (Jews, Christians, Moslems in the revelation of creation tradition, and, mysteriously, Buddhists).
6) The experience of radical boredom, despair, existential anxiety, total loss of meaning or significance of the universe as a whole and of my life in it: this puts existence itself in question by awareness of our radical contingency, precariousness, as poised over nothingness, “surrounded” by nothingness, e.g., Heidegger, for whom the awareness of being is inseparable from the awareness of nothingness, Das Nichts.

If you’re familiar with what Dwayne and I often reflect upon here, you’ll recognize in Clarke’s statements the role of what we (following Loder and others) call ‘The Void’. I haven’t read everything there is to read on metaphysics, but I can count on one hand those I’ve read who manage in their opening pages to stand me before the mirror to perceive in myself the wonder of being at all, and, in addition, to appreciate this wonder precisely in light of its gratuity and givenness in the face of my nothingness – Le Vide, Das Nichts. This, I think, is what reading metaphysics (by Christian authors) should be like.

To end with a thought on this in a very different context (e.g., origins and evolution), this is why I think humankind was created mortal from the get-go. There’s no coming into the fullness of being that is not a coming into to truth of being, and part of our truth is our absolute contingency, gratuity, and dependency upon God, and that means embracing the truth of our utter nothingness; and you don’t get that without mortality. To the extent it is true that we are nothing in ourselves – mortality is a grace.

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