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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Friday, 14 December 2012

Theology after Metaphysics?

I need some help.

I keep reading and hearing about "theology after metaphysics" and "post-metaphysical theology" and so on and so forth.

I have thought a little bit about that — I confess, only a little — and I am confused.

What on earth is theology without metaphysics? Metaphysics is what stops theology dissolving into a mere socially constructed language system with no reference beyond the language system itself.

I know what theology that does not discuss metaphysics is — I have written some myself — but theology that rejects metaphysics . . . sorry. I have not a clue.

Well, OK, I do have a clue. The work of D. Z. Phillips may be said to be "theology after metaphysics." I can see that the term would apply to his work and the work of like-minded thinkers. But much as I liked and respected the guy and admire his work it seems to me to be a dead end for Christian theology.

If we wish to retain a historic understanding of talk about God as Creator, for instance, it seems to me that one simply cannot do so without metaphysics. In fact, it is sensible metaphysics that can save theology from making the kind of silly mistakes about divine action, say, that often land Christians in unnecessary conflicts with the sciences.

I am open to correction here so feel free to explain why I am wrong.


Darren said...

Robin, I think the obvious question that ought to start this conversation (and, far too often, doesn't) is: Well, what do you mean by 'metaphysics'?

As I have encountered this discussion in Barth circles, 'metaphysics' is defined in a very particular way. It's not the basic definition you might here in an Intro to Philosophy class, like 'How the world works.' In this context, it's usually something more akin to 'Theological knowledge derived from an unrevealed source.' As Barth rejected natural theology and the analogy of being, this would include just about any theological speech that does not begin and end with Jesus Christ.

When 'post-metaphysical' is described in concrete terms like this, I think it can be pretty helpful in comparing the way in which theology is done in some quarters today with how it has traditionally been practiced.

I'm sure you've already come across Kevin Hector's book (which shares a title with this blog post), but that's a great place to start. It situates Barth in a much, much larger conversation about the way in which we attempt to map our language onto reality.

Robin Parry said...


OK. That is quite helpful. So Barth and co. mean something different by "metaphysics" than what philosophers mean.

But I wonder if it is that simple. One never quite knows with Barth (I have never felt that I "got" him) but his view of God seems very metaphysical to me (in that it implies certain answers to certain metaphysical questions).

But then, confession, I never "got" Barth's opposition to natural theology. Well, I got how it made some sense in his context but not as a global rejection. Nor his opposition to the analogy of being. His reaction to that seemed super-OTT.

I have always had a love/hate thing with Barth. There was too much Thomism in my DNA to ever be persuaded by his approach. And yet ... it does have some appeal. Hence, love/hate.

Robin Parry said...

Admission: I always felt that my failure to "get" Barth was an intellectual inability on my part and not a failure of Barth himself. I am just too "thick" to make coherent sense of it. But perhaps I am being unfair to myself. I don't know.

James Goetz said...

Okay, I'll remember that post-metaphysical does not mean philosophical naturalism....

James Palmer said...

Robin, I felt the same way, attempting to read Barth. I read quite a bit of theological stuff, but I'm no theologian, so I just assumed I was too thick and unversed in this material to understand it. It's nice to hear someone like you has had the same response.

So I take it then that Barth was not one of your main influences for universalism?

Robin Parry said...


I both love and hate Barth. It is very rich and profound and suggestive ... and yet ...

I did not really draw on any single main source. N. T. Wright provided the biblical-theological framework (even though he is an opponent of universalism).

Not sure who I drew on. Lots of people for different things