A Tale of Two Metaphysics

To wax hippie and postmodern for a moment, this is a “journey” of a post, more than a philosophical one.  Every year I go back and forth between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy.  This seems to correlate with my reading of Barth.

Ultimately, I don’t care which school is right.  They are tools, not goals.  Which one advances the kingdom better?  Which one gives a better picture of God (oops, Wittgensteinian slip)?

And I don’t have a good answer. But maybe I can point out strengths and weaknesses and show where the church can be spiritually bettered.

Continental Philosophy

To navigate modern discussions, you have to deal with Hegel.  Plain and simple.  This doesn’t mean you are a “liberal” or a “pantheist.”  It just means you are doing responsible scholarship. And it means you have to engage a certain vocabulary (the “Other,” “positing,” etc).  Nothing wrong with that but not necessarily easy.

One of the advantages is that Continental Philosophy seems to merge easily with other disciplines, like literature.  This gives it an immediate relevance that analytic philosophy seems to lack.  On the other hand, I am not always sure I know what they are saying.30665548

Analytic Philosophy

Analytic philosophy is clear, precise, and similar to doing mental exercise. I just feel sharper when I am done reading guys like Plantinga.  And I didn’t always know that analytic philosophy of today is not the same thing as of earlier generations.  Earlier analytic models thought reality (or clarity or meaning) was obtainable simply by asking the question, “Well what do you mean by that?”  Ask it enough and you arrive at meaning (or get punched in the face).

The more dangerous implication is that things are truly knowable only in the abstract and not in systems of relations.  This is deleterious for Christian theism.

But even guys like Ayer realized that was a dead-end.

After the Plantinga revolution, Christian philosophers started using many of the tools of analytic philosophy, without necessarily committing themselves to earlier conclusions–and the results are often amazing.  See especially Plantinga’s Nature of Necessity and God, Freedom, and Evil.

One of the problems, though, is that analytic guys are perceived (whether this is fair or not) as having a “take-it-or-leave-it” approach to the history of doctrine.  I will come back to that point.

Biola and Calvin College:  Can They Meet?

I single out Biola and Calvin as two respective representatives of the above tradition.  Biola boasts of luminaries like JP Moreland and William L. Craig.  The “Calvin tradition” is represented by James K. A. Smith.  And both streams have done outstanding work. Even more, analytic guys like Moreland are able to tie philosophical analysis in with the “spiritual disciplines” movement, Renovare.  Here is great promise but also great danger.


This is the brainchild of Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline.  On a practical level, much of it is quite good.  The idea that bodily disciplines break bad habits is just good, practical psychology (I got accused by a powerful Gnostic Magus on Puritanboard of denying the gospel for that sentence).

But…there is almost zero discernment in these guys.  They will take handfuls of Pentecostal, Quaker, Catholic, and Reformed spirituality and just mix ’em together.

Nevertheless…My prayer life improved from following Moreland’s advice.

Calvin Cultural Liturgies

James K. A. Smith has found himself the sparring partner of what is known as the “Biola School.”  Smith’s thesis–which I think is fundamentally correct–is that we aren’t simply “brains on a stick.”  We are embodied and liturgies, to be effective, must engage the whole person.  (I also got accused of denying the gospel on Puritanboard for that statement.  )

We will come back to that statement.

Smith, however, takes his apologetic in a different realm.  While I agree with Smith that “postmodernism” doesn’t just mean “Denying absolute truth” (what does that statement even mean?), I fear that Smith’s cultural applications do not escape the worst of postmodern, low-brow culture. Further, Smith is weak on the doctrine of the soul (in some of his cultural liturgies books he uses “brain” when he should be saying “mind”).

Is that evident at Calvin College?  Rumors abound that Calvin is gutting some of its biblical language programs, and Calvin has invited homosexual speakers in the past.  Make fun of Vineyard and Biola all you want, but I don’t think that has happened.

It is not that Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project is wrong.  I think much of it is quite insightful and I eagerly await his volume on Augustine, but I am nervous where the applications are going.

To be fair to Smith, though, and to Continental Philosophy, they have been more attentive to the history of philosophy (and perhaps, history of doctrine)

Possible Overlap

I do see some areas of overlap with Smith and Moreland

  1. Both believe in Jesus’s Kingdom Power for today
  2. Both believe in the body’s importance in spiritual disciplines

What should we do?

In the end, I side with Moreland.  We need analytic philosophy’s discipline and precision.  While both Smith and Moreland believe in Kingdom Power and bodily disciplines, the latter’s “cultural” applications are far more responsible.


Living in Christ’s Presence

It reads like a series of reflections about Willard’s lifelong ministry. Some high points:


*Evangelism isn’t manipulating people to “feel” a new experience. It primarily includes bringing them new information.
*Urges Evangelicals to read John Cassian and the Philokalia.
*Ask Jesus into your heart as your personal teacher.

The spiritual disciplines disrupt bad bodily habits. The single most unifying discipline is worship.

Restoring the soul includes seeing the “conflicted will” and bringing it to Christ.

The great commandment of Mk. 12 lists every dimension under the governance of Jesus’s kind of love. We bring all of the parts of the person under his governance. Redeeming mind, thoughts, emotions.

This plays a role in how we choose and feel and act about things. We have to go to the depths of the person before we can understand how the harmony of goodness and godliness can manifest. All of this happens in redemptive community.

Great section on dying: we suddenly find ourselves in Christ’s presence.

The Soul

Focusing on the soul. The disciplines don’t try to “find the soul.” Rather, they practice something that allows the soul to make itself known. Kind of like an inner river that pulls everything in our world together and makes everything one life. When the soul isn’t functional our experiences are shattered and set against one another.

We need people to speak to us with some degree of intelligence and experience.

When the soul is “lost” it means your life doesn’t have a center. God can restore the soul (Ps. 19). Often involves waiting for the Lord to make a context.

When you “confess” you give up splitting the self.

*Expounds upon Willard’s idea of kingdom: range of my effective power.

Spiritual Disciplines

Celebration of Discipline:

I arrange my life around practices to gain power to do what I cannot do by willpower alone currently. A discipline is an activity I engage in to receive power. We tend to overappreciate what we can do through trying and underappreciate what we can do through training.

Significant transformation comes through training, not just trying. Ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life. Busy is not the same as hurry. Ortberg then hits the high points of the disciplines:

*Study: among other things it forces our minds to focus on the Good and when focusing on the Good, we can’t fill our minds with vapidity like we find on TeeVee and the internet.

*Solitude: just practicing doing nothing. Removes the need to “hurry” and “rush.”


I listened to the audio tapes of this book. Willard gave it not long before he went to glory. He spoke with true unction and power.

Willard, Divine Conspiracy study notes

Thesis:  God is inviting us to kingdom living right now.

Willard spends some time critiquing dispensational outlooks that relegate Jesus’s kingdom message, especially the sermon on the mount, to the Millennial Age.  (Substitute “millennial reign” for “kingdom” in the Sermon on the Mount.  Hilarity ensues).

He defines God’s kingdom as the range of his effective will (Willard 25), allowing us to pray for his kingdom to come on earth as in heaven.  Further, God has given each of us a kingdom, which is the “range of our own will.”

When Jesus defined “eternal life” (John 17:3) he defined it as “the knowledge of God” and his son Jesus, whom he sent (49).

Jesus’s Vision of God’s World

Although this is a popular-level book, Willard gives a robust account of metaphysics and epistemology:

  • God’s being is joyous being (62).  This is what analytic theologians mean by “maximally perfect being.” It is “the eternal freshness of his perpetually self-renewed being” (63ff).
  • We live in a universe where infinite energy of a Personal nature is the ultimate reality (254).
  • Matter is the stuff/place of development for finite personalities who, in their bodies, have significant resources either to oppose or serve God (254).
  • God as personal reality prefers to be known by speaking (277).  

The Heavens

The heavens are the direct experience and presence of God’s “person, knowledge, and power to those who serve and trust him” (67). In NT language, to be “born from above” is to “be interactively joined with a dynamic, unseen system of divine reality in the midst of which all humanity moves” (68).

  • Spirit and Space:
    • Human spirit: I am a spiritual being who currently has a physical body (75).
    • Human self: a unity of experiences which is not located at any point in my body.
    • “the face:” do we hide our spirit behind our face?  Do we genuinely present our spiritual reality to those around us?
    • God relates to space as we do to body.  He occupies and overflows it but cannot be reducible to it.
  • Spiritual reality (79ff):
    • nonphysical, not perceived by the senses.
    • power: spirit is a form of energy, for it does work, and whatever works has power.
    • thought: our experiences are consciously directed towards objects.
    • valuing: we choose and act with reference to our choices.  This is our will.
  • Centrality of the Will or Heart
    • The will is the innermost core of a person’s self/spiritual reality (80). It is self-determining.
    • It is spirit in human beings.
  • The substantiality of the Spiritual.
    • The spirit is unbodily, personal power (81).
    • God is both spirit and substance.


“A different kind of causality” (Lewis).

Definition: “Talking to God about what we are doing together” (Willard 243).

Prayer is not:

  • Thanksgiving
  • Praise
  • meditation

Of course, the above three are part of prayer and prayer cannot get very far without them.

Can We Change God?

Moses reasoned with God (Ex. 32:10ff).

Hezekiah prevailed upon God (2 Kgs. 20).

Willard is not an open theist, contra some allegations:  “His nature, identity, and overarching purposes are no doubt unchanging” (Willard 246). However, his intentions regarding many particular purposes are not unchanging.

God created a universe responsive to Personality.  

  • kingdom praying:  personalities are ultimate and distinct (249).  This isn’t simply some Eastern mantra type prayer. Kingdom personalities interact through explicit, purposeful communication, listening and speaking, not through a mere sense of unity (250).
  • Prayer trains us to reign. It forms character.  It combines freedom and power with service and love. This means we learn to wait on God.
  • Prayer is not a mechanism, but a personal negotiation.  

The Lord’s Prayer

Prayer is a form of speaking.  The Lord’s prayer is a template that desires us to “move out” in prayer.

  • God must be addressed.  We speak to a particular person.  When we pray to God in heaven, we are placing ourselves towards the kingdom of the heavens.
  • Hallowed by thy name:  names partake of the reality (258).
  • Thy kingdom come: lots of good insights on structuralized, social evils.  Culture is a multidimensional place that embodies our collective archetypes.
  • Give us our daily bread: Today I have God and he has the provisions.
  • Trespasses: it is not psychologically possible for us to know God’s pity for ourselves and be hardhearted towards others.

Being Jesus’s Student

If I am to be someone’s apprentice, I must be with him (276).  The disciples were “engulfed” by the Spirit.

The kingdom of the heavens, from a practical point of view, is simply our experience of Jesus’ continual interaction with us in history and throughout the days, hours, and moments of our earthly existence (280).

How to be a disciple

  • Simplicity
  • I am learning to live my life as if Jesus were living my life.
  • Jesus’ teachings presuppose a life of discipleship (284).

Spiritual Disciplines

Definition: a discipline is any activity that enables us to do what we cannot do by direct effort (353). Spiritual disciplines are designed to help us withdraw from our own efforts and depend on kingdom power.  Ironically, all spiritual disciplines involve the body.  

  • Solitude and silence help us escape the “responding without thinking” moments.
  • Worship and Study: Worship imprints upon our whole being the reality of what we study.  The result is a radical disruption of the powers of evil within us and around us (363).  

The Future World

The cosmos are open to God.  In the eschaton we will “reign” with God as kings and priests (Ex. 19.6; Rev. 5.10).  “The intention of God is that we should each become the kind of person whom he can set free in his universe, empowered to do what we want to do” (379).

really knowing: when we pass through death we see the world as it is for the first time (392).  When we move into the presence of eternity, as Paul had sometimes been, “we will have the same kind of fullness and clarity of experience as those beings now have.”  The spiritual realm is the realm of truth, not distortion.

The biblical language of death as “sleep” applies to the body, not the person (and they are not the same thing).

Jesus’ body is not restrained by space, time, and physical causality (395).   In God’s universe matter is subjected to mind or spirit.

Near Death Experiences: the person transitions to see the invisible (397).  He might even interact with deceased close ones.  He, if in Christ, will be borne away by angels (Lk. 16.22).  

Key points:

Thomas Oden: It becomes difficult, if not impossible to build a Christology on a naive, mistaken Jesus (quoted in Willard, 56).

*If you bury yourself in the Psalms, you emerge knowing God and understanding life (Willard 65).