Subscriber OnlyCulture

Is your mind open enough to contemplate belief in God?

Unthinkable: It’s not clear we have either the language or patience in Ireland for metaphysics

While many of us welcome the decline of the church, there is a nagging sense that our connection to fundamental questions about human existence is being severed. Photograph: Getty images

There once was a time when only the most open-minded people considered atheism as an intellectual goal. Today, across swathes of the population, it requires significant independence of mind to contemplate belief in God.

Mainstream political debate is entirely secular and, while there are reminiscences of religious life in public institutions, the expression of personal opinion wrapped up in faith has become highly unfashionable.

When Joe Biden says he is "praying" for an end to the coronavirus pandemic it seems not just folksy but antediluvian. I mean, praying won't make pub owners check their customers' Covid certs!

While many of us welcome this transition to secularism, especially in Ireland, where the Catholic Church grievously abused its position for decades, there is a nagging sense that our connection to fundamental questions about human existence is being severed.


These questions predate Christianity. They fall into an area of study that philosophers call metaphysics but were, in fact, asked by humans long before anyone thought to write them down.

What is the meaning life? Does the world really exist? Is there an ultimate reality – an Absolute, within metaphysics – and if so where is it located: in our minds, in a cloud in the sky or somewhere else?

We've gone from John Charles McQuaid to Father Ted without anything in between

Ireland may once have been known as the land of saints and scholars but it's not clear whether we have the vocabulary, let alone the patience, to even broach these subjects today. As Trinity College Dublin philosopher Paul O'Grady once remarked, "we've gone from John Charles McQuaid to Father Ted without anything in between".

One brave soul trying to reintroduce metaphysical concepts to modern Ireland is Philip Gonzales at St Patrick's Pontifical University in Maynooth. He has just begun a two-year study on, wait for it, "analogical metaphysics in relation to incarnate mimetic desire".

Gonzales is one of 12 academics taking part in a major international research project, Widening the Horizons in Philosophical Theology, funded by Templeton Religion Trust. He is also organising a conference next year, with some heavy-hitting thinkers, on The Future of Christian Thinking to take place at the Maynooth campus (home to metaphysical discussion since 1795).

“Faith and reason must always work together,” says Gonzales who attempts to demystify a much-misunderstood discipline as this week’s Unthinkable guest.

Why is metaphysics important? Is it anything more than word-play, or mere speculation about questions which science has yet to get around to answering?

Philip Gonzales: “I think it is important to understand that metaphysics is not a homogenous discipline. There are many styles of metaphysics, some may no doubt be word-play and thus need to be left behind. For me it is important to understand metaphysics as a spiritual practice where what one thinks affects how one sees and participates in the world.

“I would add that metaphysics is astonishment before existence itself. It is the question of why there is something rather than nothing as Leibnitz and Heidegger saw. In other words, I would describe metaphysics as the question of origin and the whence and whither of human life.

Dr Philip Gonzales, lecturer in philosophy at St Patrick’s Pontifical University in Maynooth: ‘Metaphysics is astonishment before existence itself.’

“Metaphysics is human mindfulness that is concerned with the mysteries of birth and death and if there is meaning between in our sojourn through this life. Metaphysics is a thinking of liminal questions of the before and beyond, and thus it cannot help but raise the question of the possibility of an Absolute.

“If human beings are more than mere biological or economic beings and if we are not mere automatons then science cannot answer, or is not meant to answer, the most fundamental human questions such as the meaning of life, happiness, freedom, desire, love, the whence and whither of human life, along with that ever-recurring question of the Absolute which always dovetails with a more religious horizon.

“To be human is to ask and be concerned with these kinds of questions even if we often suppress and mute these questions. Metaphysics thus deals with ultimate human concerns.”

Tell me about your own research and what you hope it will achieve.

“My research is grounded in the conviction that Christianity offers a distinctive vision of being and reality that is able to address the deepest metaphysical questions of human life.

“Christian metaphysics has a story to tell which offers both a vision of how and why things hold together which in turn inaugurates a new manner of seeing and participating in the world. If I am given to be by a God who is love this implies that a radical demand is placed upon my life to respond to this love through loving and serving my neighbour in imitation of this love.

“Christian metaphysics then offers reasons of love which shows that we do not belong to ourselves but to God and to others. We are relational beings, beings of response. But this reality is no sappy story. This love is situated within the flesh and blood horizon of tangled human desire, suffering, and the violence and atrocities of history.

“If Christianity is to be viable today it must address the themes of violence, suffering and the complex web of human desire as René Girard prophetically understood...

“This kind of metaphysics is, in the words of Wittgenstein, a ‘form of life’ which must struggle to perform the vision it claims to see and believe. To paraphrase John, he who says he loves God and hates his brother is a liar.

“In sum, my research wants to show that Christian metaphysics is a new manner of seeing and participating in the world which demands to be made flesh in a practice of non-violence, a struggle to love amidst the harsh realities of history’s violence and the tangled mesh of human desire.”

For centuries, Christian philosophers have produced ever-more inventive ways of defending religious belief. Is that still the primary goal of Christian theology –to marry faith and reason?

“I do not think that there is a thing called reason that exists in some pure, floating, universal state. Reason is concrete. It is always saturated by our desires, our history, our traditions and so one. My intuition is that if Christianity is to move into the future, in these unprecedented times, that its reasons must be reasons of desire and love.

“The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says that love alone is credible. I concur. If Christianity has failed it is because Christians have failed in love, failed in imitation of Christ. Nietzsche partly knew this in his heart of hearts, I think.

“If we cannot incarnate a different desire and a different kind love from the world, we have nothing to offer and the salt has lost is flavour. At this point mere intellectual defences and logical proofs of the faith will be but clanging cymbals to those that are not Christian, as Paul would say.”

What’s the priority for Christian thinking in Ireland? Or, put another way, what key question should Ireland’s churches be asking?

“Well, I am new to Ireland. I am American by birth, but my family and I have lived 12 of the last 14 years in Europe. I am hesitant to speak directly of the Irish situation as I am still learning. I would prefer to ask a question which I think has a more universal Christian scope.

“The question I would ask genuinely is: how can Christianity truly reach the world of the 21st century without watering down and compromising the mystery of its message which is rooted in Christ as he has been handed down in the polyphonic tradition?

“How do we non-identically repeat and retrieve the Christian tradition in a dynamic and real way within the current world without losing what is worth repeating and without which nothing new can come to pass for the sake of the future?”


Ask a sage:

Facebook has become Meta to stop us from deleting it. Could religion get a new lease of life if rebranded as metaphysics?

David Hume replies: “Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames.”