Saturday, September 14, 2013

Via Media Metaphysics

A. William McVey


In this postmodern culture, where more and more people describe themselves as spiritual as opposed to religious, I hear “something” statements like, “Well, there must be something there. There must be something that explains life. I mean there has to be something.” Usually, such statements are immediately followed by declarations that the person is definitely not religious. Furthermore, the same person seems to have a certain arrogant scorn for any previous religious formation.

It appears that very few seekers of the spiritual “something” are conscious that Western religious scholars have, since the time of Greek philosophers, been concerned about the nature of the “something” of the universe. The Greeks looked for a permanent and foundational reality to believe in. In other words, they were looking for the foundational something of the universe which they called “Being.”

                It was Aristotle who insisted the metaphysical quest for the divine comprehension of the universe is found only in grasping the essence of the universe. Knowledge of the divine “something” is known by means of understanding the workings (the causation) of the universe. Eventually, this metaphysical teaching of Aristotle, with the development of medieval philosophy, became the foundational truth for theology and spirituality; Thomas Aquinas calls it the analogy of being. Up to the present day, Martin Heidegger continues to reconstruct a modern approach to the issue of the “Something of the Universe” with a new methodology of Phenomenological Metaphysics in the classic work Being and Time. In this modern work, the thrust of Heidegger’s metaphysical inquiry is about the essence of Being as it is disclosed in time.

 The metaphysical has become in the age of modernity no longer the pursuit of the unchangeable nature of the universe; rather it is an inquiry into humanity’s divine destiny. The “Something” has become a question of what is the foundational truth that must drive the universe and human consciousness. For Christian philosophy, it is the Catholic expression of metaphysics that has been extremely important. Scholastic theology has, for example, relied on Christian metaphysics to prove certain truths called the preambula which are presupposed before revelation and can be considered reasonable and possible.

  I want to draw attention to the issue of a needed Anglican metaphysics because we do have our Catholic side.  I suggest in our Episcopal journey of hope in a postmodern culture that we give serious attention to philosophical theology and a neo-scholastic approach to metaphysics. My argument is based on two Episcopal basic philosophical and theological pillars of identity. First, we describe ourselves as a hermeneutical community who hold that God is revealed through a triad of scripture, tradition and reason. For this approach to revelation to have validity we must borrow from the Catholic scholastic philosophy. In other words, we must have an Anglo- Catholic foundational preambula if we are serious about the place of reason within the context of revelation.  Note I am using reason here in the sense of a methodical dialectical pursuit of a metaphysical foundation for theology, especially spiritual theology, in an age of radical postmodern skepticism of foundational truth. The second pillar of Episcopal inquiry into the nature of God’s continuing revelation is the path of the via media (the middle way). It is John Henry Newman as part of the Tractarian movement who coined the phrase Via Media. It was a concept used within the parameters of doctrinal theology that saw Anglicanism has the middle path between a Reformed and Roman Catholic doctrinal theology of revelation and ecclesial authority.

Anglo-Catholics have strongly assumed the via media identity not only in matters of doctrinal theology, but we seem to apply it to all controversial issues. Personally, I find continuing via media identity extremely promising for our Episcopal journey of hope.  Consequently, I am defining via media as a practice of more than live and let live, or we agree to disagree because this thinking is not an exercise of profound reasoning. Via Media might serve as the basis of an Anglo Catholic, neo-scholastic metaphysics that opens up new avenues of dialogue within the Catholic and Evangelical community, and simultaneously provides our Episcopal  theology with the real heft necessary in an age when the conversation once again is about the spiritual nature of Being (the Seeker Something).

I propose that there is the beginning of this philosophical theology in the American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce.  Some have called Pierce the American Aristotle, but I like to call him the American scientific scholastic.  His philosophy was tremendously influenced by scholastic realism, especially the works of John Dun Scotus. From this starting point, Pierce began a reconstruction of religious metaphysics to a scientific or cosmogonic one.  It is metaphysics about the divine nature of the universe becoming manifested and real over time. It is really metaphysics of more is yet to be revealed. “I think that the existence of God, as well as we conceive of it, consists in this, that a tendency towards ends is so necessary a constituent of the universe that the mere action of chance upon innumerable atoms has an inevitable teleological result. One of the ends so brought about is the development of intelligence and of knowledge; and therefore I should say God’s omniscience, humanly conceived, and consists in the fact that knowledge in its development leaves no question unanswered.” (The Essential Pierce, P. 236).

Pierce’s metaphysics is a method of painstaking and persistent inquiry into the movement of the universe and human conscious to foundational truth.  Humanity in its questions, disputes, opinions, attitudes, theories and tests is driven to a final compromise and opinion. Human beings at their best are driven in intellect, will and soul to the final truth of the universe through a type of dialectical via media inquiry.  Rosa Maria Perez-Teran Mayorga writes that Pierce’s metaphysics “…claims that  the drive towards a consensus about things is as much an actual force or law or power as the gravitational one; it is a tendency that guides thought in one “fated” or determined direction-the truth…the very fact that we engage in inquiry presupposes that we will be persuaded by the right kind of evidence to accept the correct answer… according to Pierce there is some predisposition, some occult power… we are destined in the direction of truth, so given enough time, we look likely to arrive at it. It is a real fact that there would be a final option were the investigation to continue long enough.” (From Realism to ‘Realicism’, The Metaphysics of Charles Sanders Pierce, and p.145)  Finally, I take it that Pierce is a Via Media type person, and there is a Via Media metaphysics that gives Anglo-Catholic theology real heft and sustaining power in our Journey of Hope.






  1. Bill, well done. You have identified what inherent process has for many centuries allowed Anglicanism to enfold modern scientific inquiry and theory into our natural theology and into practical ecclesiastical application. At our best we have in mission theology, our educational processes (seabury series and small group applications in the 50's and '60's), MRI and VIM mission and funding development and what was once our approach to social concerns and issues. We now must review, restore and reapply what was once actually practiced to have an authentic Anglican future the basic theology that you have addressed in your essay.

  2. While Hegel may not be the center of the discussion Bill, his dialectic at least forms part of the structure through which the via media is formed. The end is, of course, the via media as I read your essay. I suppose that the teleological supposition of the scholastics does form the basis for any theology of via media. I think that this essay is an important step towards rediscovering the via media in today's Anglican church. You should submit this essay to the Anglican Theological Review, The Christian Century, or some other legitimate publisher in the field of theology. Thanks for this daring and insightful contribution.