The title of Kevin Hector’s Theology Without Metaphysics: God, Language and the Spirit of Recognition might mislead, and Hector is careful to explain what he does not mean by metaphysics: “The term is sometimes used to designate any set of claims about that which transcends nature, or any set of claims about what things are like. I am emphatically not interested in doing without metaphysics in these senses - or, more precisely, I am interested in doing without them just insofar as they are bound up with the variety of metaphysics I am interested in doing without” (3).

What is the metaphysics he wants to do without? He draws on Heidegger, who defines post-Cartesian metaphysics as the view that “identifies the being of beings as that in and upon which they are grounded, and identifies this ground, in turn, with human ideas about them. Simply put . . . Heidegger claims (a) that metaphysics equates the being of beings - their fundamental reality - with our conceptions of them, and (b) that it thus fits beings into a prior conceptual framework” (3-4).

After reviewing Heidegger’s analysis of modern philosophy, Hector claims that “metaphysics” as he uses the term has two features:

“first, essentialism, that is, a picture according to which an objects ultimate reality is identified with a real, idea-like ‘essence’ that stands at a remove from ordinary experience, such that the latter may come to seem shadowy, second-rate, a realm of ‘mere appearance,’ etc. Because fundamental reality is thus thought to stand apart from experience, it might appear that human knowers are in fact cut off from reality, since we are immediately in touch only with the phenomenal realm. This leads to a second feature of metaphysics, namely, what I am calling correspondentism, according to which the distance between human persons and fundamental reality is supposed to be bridged by dint of our ideas and words hooking up with or corresponding to such reality” (14-15). Defined in these terms, it’s not hard to see why we’d want to do without metaphysics: “it seems alienating, violent, and idolatrous.”

Hector notes that ridding theology of bad metaphysics is harder than it seems. He examines the apophatic theology of Jean-Luc Marion and the deconstructive theology of John Caputo, and concludes that, despite their differences, they have many things in common. The crucial common feature is in the way they construe language. Both assume that “language . . . is essentially correspondistic” and therefore inherently violent. The only way to resist the violence, especially violence committed on God or in the name of God, is to maintain “distance between language and its objects.” But this is only the case because Marion and Caputo both end up assuming what they claim to resist, “essentialist-correspondist metaphysics” (25). Their reversion to “metaphysics” illustrates, Hector says, the fact that “a metaphysical way of seeing things has become so familiar that we no longer recognize it as a way of seeing things; the metaphysical framework has become common sense” (27).

Metaphysics is enslavement to a “picture” of reality and our place in it; Hector offers a “therapeutic” response that offers an alternative picture. The first part of the picture is “to contest the assumption that God must stand at a remove from the realm of creaturely experience, such that God’s putative appearance in the latter would be, at best, merely an appearance - the assumption, in other words, that there must be a gap between God and God-with-us” (32). The second piece of the picture is the affirmation that God is “wholeheartedly identified with” His acts ad extra (35).

To deal with the claim that language itself is inherently violent and metaphysical, Hector argues that “the loss of correspondentism does not entail that God is necessarily distant from language” and he suggests that the way to show this is to treat “God-talk” as “an example of ‘the supernatural becoming natural’ - an account, that is, which explains how God could make use of human language, and how language could be fit for this use” (37). On this account, “the Spirit of Christ enters into ordinary discursive practices in order to appropriate human concepts, to judge and fulfill their meaning, to enable one to refer to God, and to provide the possibility of speaking truly of God” (39). In place of correspondence, he describes language in terms of recognition. Using a concept means intending “one’s usage as going on in the same way as certain precedents” and claiming “this same precedent-status for one’s own usage.” Meaning is thus a “product of the normative trajectory implicit in a series of such precedents,” and that means that the meaning of a concept changes, even if only slightly, “each time a candidate use is recognized.” Judging a proposition to be true means “to see it as going on in the same way as one’s other commitments and to use it to judge still other propositions” (38).

In sum, “if we understand God on the basis of God’s being-with-us, the semantics of ordinary language on the basis of recognitive practices, and the Spirit of Christ as entering into, and mediated through, these same practices, we can arrive at an account according to which one’s disavowal of metaphysics does not entail that God stands at a distance from one’s language about God” (45).

Articles by Peter J. Leithart