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Want to evangelise the world? Study metaphysics, says Sydney’s Bishop Richard Umbers

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Bishop Richard Umbers gives a talk at The Two Wolves Community Cantina, Broadway, on 29 March for the men’s group Fathers on Tap. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

In a recent talk given at the Theology of the Pub in Melbourne, Australia’s youngest Bishop, Richard Umbers, finished with a surprising statement: “If you really want to evangelise, learn metaphysics”.

For many, ‘metaphysics’ conjures an image where a dusty lecturer in a dusty room, asks; “is a chair really a chair?” It is seen, at best, as a kind of fringe activity of intellectual life, much like interpretive dance or haiku.

However, nothing could be further from reality, and the recovery of metaphysics is necessary to the re-evangelisation of culture.

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“Metaphysics is the ‘first philosophy’,” said Bishop Umbers. “It deals with the question of God, the question of the world and of the soul, of the state of ‘being in as much as it is being’ or [in Latin] ens qua ens. It is looking at the technical aspect of reality.”

Since the ancient Greeks, the world’s greatest thinkers were, first and foremost, metaphysicians. It was the gold standard of intellectual pursuit. The poetic Middle Ages described metaphysics as the “handmaid” of theology, which was the “queen of the sciences” (because it dealt with the highest subject matter, God). In the Modern Era, metaphysics has been slowly replaced with epistemology, the question of how we know things. In this way, the focus of the world’s thinkers shifted from objective Truth, to subjective knowledge.

Although it may have fallen out of fashion, Bishop Umbers explains how metaphysics still operates as the basis of all thought – even for those who expressly claim the opposite.

“When we say that philosophy doesn’t matter, (as) scientists like Lawrence Kraus and Stephen Hawkins (say), they are actually making metaphysical assumptions. They are just doing bad metaphysics,” he said.

To illustrate the role of metaphysics, it is helpful to picture a court of law. The trial consists of facts, figures, statistics and evidence but these do not speak for themselves. It is up to the lawyer/prosecutor to string these together to make a case. So, in the existential court, science finds the evidence, but metaphysics makes the case. Bishop Umbers says that it is particularly important for Catholics in a pluralistic society to learn their metaphysics. Extending the court analogy, our post-modern world has put Truth on trial, and needs good metaphysicians to convince a jury of its existence.

“If you were living in a society where the society or culture was generally Christian and you had easy access to priests and theologians, and you had a general trust of them, that would be fine. But we live in a society in which there are many different ideas, many different beliefs,” said Bishop Umbers.

“Most people have some degree of higher education and so are accustomed to dealing with complex issues in a sophisticated manner in other areas of life. But when it comes to their faith, or when it comes to an outlook on how life is, they have been brought up on a diet of simplistic fluff,” he said.

This inverse proportion between people’s general education and their philosophical and faith formation “creates a false dichotomy between faith and reason,” he said.

Just months before he passed away, I asked the great Australian Bioethicist Dr Nicholas Tonti-Filippini what, in his opinion, was the biggest crisis facing Australian Catholics.

Dr Tonti-Filippini spent thirty years battling some of the most noxious ideas and threats to the dignity of life – abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, IVF, bestiality, gender dysmorphia and abuse of minors to name a few – so I was surprised when he answered that the biggest crisis was the fact that most Catholics stop formal faith education around the age of 12, generally coinciding with their Confirmation.

He explained that as a Catholic grows, he or she would inevitably face their first adult crisis: a failed relationship, a miscarriage, a loss of faith or a deep wound. During this crisis, the Catholic may reach out to their faith, but will only have the faith apparatus of a 12 year old. They imagine that this is all the Church has to offer, declare they have “outgrown it”, and move on with life. Their Faith becomes a nostalgic memory of simpler times, much like the dusty metaphysics lecture room.

Not only is a basic grasp of metaphysics essential to cultivating an adult faith, but it is essential for evangelisation. This was pointed out by then-Cardinal Ratzinger in his 2006 Regensburg Address, where he warned the German university that, “A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion to the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.”

“To be able to explain the ‘reason for hope’ to like minded well educated colleagues, you need a reasonable sophistication and grasp of philosophy,” said Bishop Umbers.

Metaphysics is a “certain training of the mind” and, according to Bishop Umbers it is a gruelling, but rewarding, ride. “You have to be prepared to read. There are no short cuts. There are no easy courses. You can’t use your imagination when doing metaphysics, it is purely conceptual.” Warming to the theme, he said that it is less about “gooey feelings” and more about “well thought-through positions.”

Apart from being difficult, the biggest obstacle to learning metaphysics is knowing where to begin.

“It would be good to have a teacher,” said Bishop Umbers “especially when you first set out, you tend to get many things wrong.”

“You need to identify philosophers that you trust. You can at the University of Notre Dame, Australian Catholic University, the Seminary, Campion College, there is a number of places where you can find good philosophers,” he said.

But more than anything, Bishop Umbers encourages people to hit the books themselves.

“There is nothing like actually reading Aristotle, or actually reading Thomas Aquinas. And there are many, many books to help you to read them.”

“It’s a question of thinking about it, making time, maybe getting together with a few others to make sure that it actually happens. It’s like, we all know we should do some exercise but there’s always a reason not to go for that walk.”

Putting his money where his mouth is, Bishops Umbers says that he will offer courses to those who are interested. “What would be good I think is to have some summertime courses that would do intensive study of this area. If I had enough people I would start one up myself. I’d teach it myself,” he said.

He also has plans to begin a series of podcasts on Faith and Reason as well as the Sacraments, which will be available in April.

The gradual disillusionment with metaphysics is nothing new. Two and a half thousand years ago, Socrates said to his friend Phaedo, “It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being [i.e. metaphysics] – but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence, and would suffer a great loss.”

If you are interested in learning metaphysics, contact Bishop Richard Umbers. He is off Facebook for Lent, but says that he will get back to you after Easter. In the meantime, he suggests you pour yourself a cup of tea and read one of these:

Christian Philosophy (Joseph M. De Torre)
Classical Philosophy: A History of Philosophy without any gaps (Peter Adamson)
The Love of Wisdom (Stephen Cowan & James Spiegel)
A New History of Western Philosophy (Anthony Kenny)
Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (Edward Feser)
Theology and Sanity (F J Sheed)
Summa of the Summa (Peter Kreeft)


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