Thursday 24 December 2015

The Metaphysics of The Family, revisited

Consider the significance of the family unit as we experience it for ourselves. Reflect that it may hold within it the secret of the underlying pattern of the whole of the manifested universe. 

Edited from page 206 of A Geography of Consciousness, by William Arkle, 1974.

Metaphysics refers to our basic understanding of reality - the structure or pattern of reality. The earliest philosopher in Ancient Greek were metaphysicians; as they tried to understand whether reality was fundamental static, or changing and how these were related; whether it was ultimately water, air, fire and so on.

Historical Christianity mostly inherited its various metaphysics from the Classical Greek and  Roman world; but there was another and very different understanding basic reality that came from the Ancient Hebrews - of reality as primarily about human relationships and specifically family relationships.

So there are writings of God as a Father to the Nation of the Jews in the Old Testament - and the language of the New Testament has multiple references to Christ as Son of God or Son of Man; and to Men as Sons of Gods, heirs, adopted by God and so forth.

Probably, most intellectual Christians over the past two millenia have regarded the theological language of Classic Metaphysics as 'True'' descriptions of  reality (although there have been strong disputes within that traditions - between especially between Platonists such as Augustine of Hippo and Aristotelians such as Aquinas). By contrast the language of human relationships has been regarded as not literally true but metaphorical, illustrative.

For example, Jesus Christ has generally been conceptualized in abstract philosphical terms, such as the language of the Athanasian Creed: 

we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son: and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate: and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible: and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal: and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals: but one eternal. As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated: but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.
This is typical of the abstract philosophical discourse of Classical metaphysics, and this metaphysical style has generally been regarded by theologians as literally true as a description of reality -- indeed mandatorily true, dogma, an article of faith when incororated in creeds and confessions. The philosophical dogmas of Christiology and the Trinity are often taken to define Christianity. By contrast, the language of human relationships - of Family, Fathers, Sons and the 'interpersonal' idea of Love etc - has been regarded as symbolic, metaphorical, illustrative, optional. 

But there has always existed an alternative possibility within Christianity, which is to regard the Hebrew discourse of human relationships as being literally true (i.e. as true as we are capable of knowing); and the language of Classical Philosophy as illustrative, symbolic and secondary. This discourse is one which regards ultimate reality as being best captured by the language of family.

This is what I mean by the Metaphysics of Family - the idea that discourse of family is the best, primary, most literally true way of conceptualizing ultimate reality.

The Metaphysics of The Family therefore does not explain the basic and fundamental structure of reality in terns of stasis, change, forms, the nature of Time and eternity, identity, properties (such as omniscience and omnipotence) -- But instead reality is conceptualised in abstracted ideal terms derived-from the type of relationship characteristic of Family: the reality and distinctness of men and women, parents and children, marriage and procreation, and the structural primacy of loving relationships.

I am, of course, talking here about the (often implicit) metaphysical theology associated with Mormonism and 'the Restoration' -- and emphasising how on the one hand it represents a massive departure from the tradition of intellectual and philosophical theology going back to Greek and Roman times; and how on the other hand it is an abstract and systematic crystallisation of what has probably been the mainstream and most common understanding of Christianity among ordinary, simple people whose conceptualisation derived from the abundant Biblical discourse of family relationships.

I personally find the Metaphysics of The Family to be a deep, revealed truth of reality.

For me, 'The Family' is therefore not merely an important moral value (e.g. 'family values' which Christians might promote as one of several moral values); but the fundamental principle that holds within it nothing less than the secret of the underlying pattern of the whole of the manifested universe.


Geraint Apted said...

That may well be correct. However (there's always a however), that makes me wonder about those who leave the family, not to form their own family, but to be a single person who dwells on his own, and who contemplates things of the spirit. I don't just mean the traditional hermit (that would be the purest version), but also the learned theologian/philosopher, who may remain in society, but who is primarily not a family person. Each variant of the type might be termed the 'wise man'. These people though very rare have existed throughout history, and despite their tendency to be alone and out of the world, they very often leave an immense legacy in terms of understanding the nature of reality and God.

Using the assumption that nothing happens without a reason, perhaps these men depart from the usual pattern of family because they have been made somewhat differently by God. I mean that God may be directly instrumental in ensuring that these 'wise men' do not have families, and instead, spend their time on earth, first contemplating the divine, then talking/writing about the results of that contemplation. In this way God tells humanity over and over about His message in ways suitable to the particular culture in to which each 'wise man' is born.

This 'wise man' type would fit into the role of 'Son' to God the Father. In this respect, the wise men would be working at/for the macro level (universal/God), rather than the micro level (human family). It may be a planned thing.

Would this fit in with Mormon thinking?

Anonymous said...

A modern stumbling block to seeing the true roots of the Abrahamic faith- with its focus on parenthood and procreation over sophistic absolutes and transcendence- is that modern Judaism is so deeply influenced by Greek/Roman thought as to suggest that the latter is identical with ancient Hebrew beliefs. That modern mainstream Christians and Jews hold to a view of reality that would have been downright alien to the authors of the Bible is rarely acknowledged. Indeed, with view to the debates among early Church Fathers, the Jews were slower to adopt Roman philosophy than Christian intellectuals, and interpreting the Bible's depiction of a anthropomorphic personal God would have been considered Judaizing. Yet few interpretations of God would be less anthropomorphic or personal that that held by present day Judaism!

Your interest in William Arkle has me more than a little intrigued. Arkle's words remind me a great deal of President Lorenzo Snow's teachings. President Snow was the most spiritually sensitive of all the prophets in this dispensation, and he had the deepest, clearest understanding of the family's role as the foundation of the universe. Very few people have ever spoken alike to Lorenzo Snow, and the similarities in Arkle's thought are fascinating.

Anonymous said...

My apologies, I did not identify myself in the previous comment.
- Carter Craft

Bruce Charlton said...

@GA - All that a society can do is teach the rule not the exceptions. I agree that there are exceptions, and important ones - such as geniuses.

@CC - That reminds me - I need to make a specific study of President Snow.

Nathan Wright said...

Bruce, Merry Christmas and thank you for your work. Your writing here helped me see past my positivist mindset and return to Christianity.

This post is especially interesting for me, because in looking into the Mormon and Orthodox churches, I've been encountering a lot of "Mormons are not Christian because they don't believe in the Trinity". Having read some of your Mormon apologetics here over the past year, I find that line of argument wrong and extremely vexing. Because, how can Christians consider this abstract, philosophical concept of "The Trinity" (not mentioned in those terms anywhere in the Bible) to be a central, non-negotiable aspect of their faith? What difference does it make, and how can we really know for sure, whether the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are separate beings, or One in the highly technical sense that is meant by the theologians?

It almost seems that people are being disingenuous, so little sense do their arguments make to me. I mean both their explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity itself, and on their insistence of its centrality. (Orthodox can marry people of other denominations, but not Mormons, because they are not considered Christian, it seems largely because of this deviance from the Nicene Creed.) But then I remember that all of the early church councils and heresies centered on exactly this point, so I must be missing something. I suppose I will need to go back and read the early church fathers, and Aquinas and Augustine, to get my arms around the debate.