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A contest of metaphysics

At the root of today’s political and cultural debates is a sharp disagreement about the nature of reality

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A contest of metaphysics
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In 1992 James Carville, a Clinton campaign strategist, quipped in a TV interview that “It’s the economy, stupid!” and the phrase has become iconic in American political discourse. It is trotted out whenever a candidate goes off-script and focuses on esoteric things people don’t care about instead of “meat and potato” or “kitchen table” issues.

But, although this idea is usually true, at this particular moment in history it is not. Right now, the biggest threat facing America and the West is not economic or political in nature. Our many economic and political problems, from inflation to borders to racism, are merely symptoms of a very serious disease. But the disease is not something that occupies the attention of many people. In fact, most people think it can safely be ignored. I am speaking here of metaphysics.

Now I’m pretty sure the first response of many people will be to ridicule the claim that something as rarified and abstract as “the science of being qua being” could be responsible for our cultural decline, political polarization, and all the craziness that is associated today with “wokeness.” But in fact, the root problem behind all the many and various symptoms of our Weimer Republic-like cultural situation is philosophical in nature.

Andrew T. Walker tweeted recently that “Disputes between Christianity and secularism are really just conflicts over whose rival version of metaphysics is true.” This statement correctly points out the fact that we live in the midst of a raging war between two rival belief systems that are competing for our allegiance. Both claim the right to legislate for our society and both advocate for a specific metaphysical system.

Metaphysics is the most imperious of the sciences because it purports to define the true nature of reality. Other academic disciplines can sometimes describe merely what people believe or think, but the job of metaphysics is to describe what is real and, by implication, what is unreal.

So, metaphysics differentiates between real and unreal things. Wisdom is aligning our lives with reality so that we work with the universe rather than raging against it as it crushes us. So, knowing the difference between what is really real and what just appears to be real is critically important both for individuals and for societies.

Many of our cultural problems result from confusing illusory and make-believe things with real ones. You can see this in the transgender debate.

Many of our cultural problems result from confusing illusory and make-believe things with real ones. You can see this in the transgender debate. Why do so many mentally unstable people get bent out of shape if you dare to “misgender” them? It is because they are fighting reality. They are trying desperately to make something unreal by magic incantations, that is, by using words to bring a new reality into existence. The theory says that if we just change the pronouns and get everyone to affirm our lived experience, then presto a new reality appears.

So, if my identity and all my hopes for happiness rest on playing the magic word game, then woe betide the bigot who won’t play along!

But what if sex is real because human beings have natures that participate in universals, which are exemplary ideas in the mind of God that determine what individually existing things in the world actually are? And, what if reality cannot be changed by our opinions, theories, and words, or even by the opinions, theories, and words of the whole society acting in concert? What if our choice is either to align ourselves with the reality of biologically based sex as natural and unchangeable or else to hurl ourselves recklessly against the natural reality that doesn’t care what we think?

This puts social justice and the “grand oppression narrative” in serious question. Marxists today have convinced most of the gatekeepers of our culture that all the unhappiness in the world is caused by oppressors oppressing victims. When people begin to believe this secular narrative they reject the Christian notion of creation, sin, and salvation, and they substitute critical theory and salvation as liberation instead.

But what if liberation from nature is impossible? What if the secular narrative is metaphysically false? What if classically Christian metaphysics that sees sex as real, instead of as just a social construct, is true?

This is the metaphysical dispute to which Walker referred above. The metaphysical dispute is fundamental to all economic and political issues because all such issues resolve down to disagreements about the nature of reality.

What is sex for? What are people for? These are questions that require metaphysical answers. Secularism says we can safely ignore metaphysics because it all just opinions anyway. Still, the nagging, haunting question won’t go away. What if the Christian account of reality is metaphysically true?

Craig A. Carter

Craig A. Carter is the research professor of theology at Tyndale University in Toronto, Ontario, and theologian in residence at Westney Heights Baptist Church in Ajax, Ontario.

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