Where Does Univocal Metaphysics Come From?

At the very core of the political theological position I have staked out is the judgment that a univocal metaphysics represents a fundamental and very dangerous error –the error which, I have argued, is at the root of both fundamentalism and of most, if not all, secularisms. It is the error, in other words, at the root of the current crisis of human civilization and one which we must correct.

By a univocal metaphysics I mean one which says that everything that exists exists in the same way we do. It is simply that some things are more powerful than others.  God is a being like we are. It is just that He is infinite. Or else God doesn’t exist at all (though he might be built).

In order to correct an error we must first discover its source. In past analyses I have argued that the emergence of a univocal metaphysics in Christendom from the twelfth century on was a response to the formation of sovereign state structures resulting from the Norman Conquest and the Crusades (of which the Norman Conquest, in taking Sicily from the Fatimids, ultimately made itself a part). The experience of life under a sovereign king created the basis in experience for the idea of divine sovereignty which then drove the formation of a univocal metaphysics from Anselm through Duns Scotus and William of Occam, up to the reformers and the philosophers of the Enlightenment.

I have also noted parallel developments in Dar-al-Islam with the formation of quasi-sovereign status especially after the Turkic invasions, something which established Asharism, with its strong doctrine of divine sovereignty and its resultant univocal metaphysics, as the dominant form of Islamic kalam.

Recently, however, I have wanted to dig more deeply, impelled by a troubling claim made by John Milbank in an unpublished article some years ago that Judaism and Islam, because of their focus on the fulfillment of the Law, are incapable of a metaphysics of participation, and essentially stuck in univocity. This seems to me to be wrong (can’t fulfillment of the Law itself be a participation in the divine, through the medium of connaturality, as Thomistic Christology and mystical theology alike suggest). But the fact remains that much of postmedieval Islam and a significant part of postmedieval Judaism (generally nonmystical trends) do tend towards a univocal metaphysics  –or else try to avoid metaphysics altogether. And of course one of Milbank’s great contributions has been to show that the deconstructionist critique of metaphysics actually applies only to a univocal metaphysics, a metaphysics which much deconstructionism itself covertly affirms.

Thus my alternative to Milbank’s thesis, an alternative which seeks to conserve his insight while avoiding what seems to me to be a profound misunderstanding and devaluing of Judaism and Islam:

As I have argued elsewhere (following Sartre), humanity is fundamentally the desire to be God: to be infinite and necessary, rather than finite and lacking the power of Being in ourselves. We have pursued this goal in many different ways and, when we have decided it is impossible, have struggled to come to terms with and find meaning in the light of that conclusion in many more ways.  One of the fundamental ways in which humanity has encountered the sacred has been in the just act. This is the Way of Israel, and expressed in diverse ways in Judaism and Islam and, in syncretism with various Hellenic ways focused on the search for meaning, in Christianity. This way is, in its pure form, ethical, legal, and even revolutionary. It is not metaphysical. It finds its origins in the struggle of Israel against the warlord of late Bronze Age Canaan and their Egyptian overlords. When Israel was defeated rabbinic Judaism emerged as a way of remaining faithful to revolutionary ideals in the context of a world in which revolution now seemed impossible. Thus the Talmudic discipline of deliberation regarding what is and what can be just in a petty commodity society under the rule of global empires. Christianity emerged out of a failed Jewish messianism, and thus also takes revolutionary failure as it s point of departure, but focuses on the supernaturally just act, symbolized by the crucifixion of the failed messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, as a way of attaining connaturality with God and thus solving a problem –how to cross the threshold from contingent to necessary Being—which was not Jewish but rather Greek in origin. Islam, on the other hand, rejects defeat and asks how justice can be joined to power and the will of God actually realized on earth in a just society.

It is in this context that the error, itself quite natural, takes place which leads to a univocal metaphysics. When we encounter God on the battle field of the revolution, as the Undeconctructible demand for justice (Derrida’s term), there is a temptation, rather than seeing Justice as the ground of our experience of the divine (the authentically Jewish way and a constitutive dimension of any healthy Christianity or Islam) to instead use the idea of God as a way to ground the demand for justice. When this is contested we respond with a metaphysics (which is the only way to establish the “existence” of God once it has been contested). And since the God in question has been experienced as the “commander of right and forbidder of wrong,” the result pulls strongly –one might say almost irresistibly– in the direction of a univocal metaphysics.

Most Judaism and much Islam have been saved from this by a strict separation among the sacred sciences between legal scholarship (Talmud or fiqh), philosophy or kalam, and mystical disciplines such as Kaballah, Sufism, or the batin doctrines of the Ismailis and other Shia traditions. But to the extent that there is an effective political authority actually “commanding right and forbidding wrong,” and this authority is grounded metaphysically, the result will be a univocal metaphysics like the one that developed among the Asharites and which is now the norm in most non-Sufi Sunni Islam.

Christianity presents a different problem. We drank deeply at the sacred well of metaphysics in the early, formative stages of our development as a distinct way. While the content of our story is Jewish its form is Hellenic. We are a mystery cult. And mystery cults are the popular religious basis and ritual manifestation of the Hellenic variant of the Indo-European way, which has been focused on the search for meaning. Through participation in the mysteries or by means of the journey of the dialectic we approach as closely as possible to knowledge of and connaturality with the Unmoved Mover, the One, Being as Such. What the story of Jesus does is to show how full (if still accidental and not entitative) connaturality , the possibility of which was always rejected by classical Hellenism and the very idea of which was regarded as bordering on idolatry by Judaism and Islam alike—might actually be achieved.  Specifically, philosophy tells us that there is a first principle (Being) in terms of which the universe can be explained and human action ordered. It cannot tell us what this first principle is, in the sense of giving us knowledge of its essence, for the simple reason that Being is beyond definition.  We gain this knowledge through the just act and specifically when we are stretched beyond the justice required by reason and natural law and into a Justice which has no name and no definition, the Justice to which Jesus called us when he told us to take up the Cross (to become revolutionaries, literally or figuratively).

But of course this demand, precisely because it stretches us beyond our nature, is technically impossible, or at least impossible without grace. Therefore “all have sinned, all have fallen short of the glory of God.”

The critical question then becomes whether this falling short is mortally sinful or merely developmental. Catholicism, with its doctrine of purgatory, tends towards the latter view, but never embraced it completely, something which requires something like a doctrine of rebirth and reincarnation (perhaps infinite rebirth or infinite reincarnation). But it is also possible to read this falling short in a way which leads to a doctrine of irremediable, even radical depravity. This is the road taken by Anselm, Duns Scotus, and eventually by the Reformers.  Jesus’ merit, whether we opt for sola fides or fides caritas formata, substitutes for our own lack. There is no real connaturality with God. But there is forgiveness for our failure to achieve this connaturality, a failure built into our finite and contingent nature.

This still doesn’t force a univocal metaphysics –as long as we stay away from metaphysics altogether. But Christianity, as it happens, needs a metaphysics.  Especially if we are saved by Jesus’ merit rather than by an asymptotic approach, over many lifetimes, towards connaturality with God through the supernaturally just (revolutionary) act, Christianity needs the Incarnate Word, true God and true Human, one in Being with the Father, whose death alone can substitute for our lack.  And it therefore needs the Trinity. And this is impossible to think without metaphysics.

But what kind of metaphysics do we get if we begin with a God who makes impossible demands on his creatures, damns them for failing to meet them, and then saves (some or all of) them by having his own Son crucified in our place? Certainly not a metaphysics of participation. Indeed, we get a univocal metaphysics centered on a doctrine of divine sovereignty and divine glory more radical than anything the Asharites ever even attempted.  Unfortunately we also get one which makes it very difficult to think either the Trinity or the Incarnate Word.  Thus the persistent tendency for Protestantism (and the more Augustinian strains of Catholicism) to slip back towards the Arianism of their roots.

Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing …

 And of course this is not really sufficient to satisfy the human shortfall.

The only way to think the Incarnate Word is on the basis of an analogical metaphysics of participation in which it becomes at once a symbol of human participation in the divine through the supernaturally just act and the limit case of our asymptotic approach to that point. The only way to think the Trinity is as the Esse as such, a shared Being in which we all participate and in which we are called to participate more fully by taking on the divine nature, through the supernaturally just act. But from this point of view we don’t really need the crucifixion as expiatory sacrifice. It is just a mark of a justice which radically transcends the ordinary demands of natural law, which is revolutionary in the deepest and most profound sense of carrying us beyond our existing form or structure or essence to something new –and towards the divine.

This argument by itself does not defeat a univocal metaphysics –or the Asharite or Protestant doctrines it helps theorize. But it does suggest that a univocal metaphysics is the product of trying think through metaphysically a certain type of theology, a theology of divine sovereignty. This theology needs a metaphysics and always and only yields a univocal metaphysics. But this univocal metaphysics doesn’t actually meet its needs, at least in the case of Christianity. Sunni Islam might be able to manage provided it restricts the role of metaphysics to proving the reasonableness of belief (the original function of kalam ), and provided it supplements legal disciplines with mystical practice, which provides much of what an analogical metaphysics does, but at a higher, lived level. But if Protestantism and the more Augustinian strands of Catholicism want to survive, they will need to reconcile themselves with an analogical metaphysics of Esse. There are, to be sure, longstanding efforts to do precisely this. The Mercersberg Theology of the nineteenth century, which sought to retheorizes Protestantism in a way which began with the Incarnation was one. So is the contemporary Finnish School of Lutheran theology, which has tried to develop an authentic doctrine of deification rooted in Luther’s own works. And of course Radical Orthodoxy, much as it sees itself as Catholic, is also Augustinian and began, at least in the Anglican rather than the Roman communion.

I look forward to dialogue with the proponents of these efforts while I chart the very different path of developing and transforming the Catholic way in dialogue with traditions which provide a more coherent way to think our asymptotic and never complete approach to the divine, and which balance our understanding of God as Esse with a recognition of Esse as neither substance nor subject, but rather relationship and generativity.

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