It’s always possible to enter the mind of an author and savor his or her genius – be it the rational genius of a Kant or the metaphysical genius of a Guénon or Schuon. But it is never forbidden to leave it – all the more so if this genius rightly refuses any disciple (Guénon). Thus, without renouncing the contribution of their genius, we can reproach a Kant for his critical sleep, a Guénon for his ignorance of Christianity or a Schuon for his transcendent unity of religions1 (Borella)2.

In this instance, we must denounce the trap of a metaphysics positioned above religions and, significantly, such an approach seems to be expressed in the formula “theologia sine metaphysica nihil3 (theology, without metaphysics, is nothing). Admittedly, this is less violent than it sounds when you realize that theology is intrinsically metaphysical. Take the Trinity, for example, which says much more than “God is Father” or “He is one” (which many other religions have rightly asserted), specifying that “God begets God eternally”, that “He is Son” too, and, most particularly, that the Persons in it are pure Relations (Father, Son) while the Relation of Love and Gift is, itself, a Person (Holy Spirit) – relations which of course are subsistent, otherwise we’d be asserting three gods. What’s fundamental here is the possibility of moving from a metaphysics of being to a metaphysics of relation: Ens et Relatio convertuntur (Being and Relation convert), we might say, if we wished to endow the formula, in Latin, with an authority. Other eminently metaphysical examples are not lacking, such as Christ’s proclamation: “God will be all in all” (1 Cor. XV, 28), and so on. And it is indeed a metaphysics intrinsic to the Christian mysteries; it flows directly from them, conjointly even, and nowhere else could it have been revealed.

To ignore this metaphysical component, which is an integral part of theology, would be a mistake in itself. But it would be an even more serious error to believe that metaphysics could happily make up for the shortcomings of theology from the outside. This “outside” would in fact be an “above”, an overhang; it would be borrowing the eye of God or believing to do so. The seriousness of this error lies in the illusion in which it traps the person who commits it; in particular, that of believing that the concept of gnosis is equivalent to effective gnosis, whereas the concept of water does not quench thirst any more than the concept of fire burns.

The aim of this article is to clarify the links between metaphysics and theology.


If no theology can be canonical, even those of “the two glorious doctors, the angelic Saint Thomas and the seraphic Saint Bonaventure” (Sixtus V, Bulla Triumphantis, 1558), it’s because they are all matters of interpretation. Moreover, their two metaphysics complement each other, but they can “neither exclude nor coincide” (Etienne Gilson).

Revelation comes first, with its mysteries, and even the Gospels are according to Mark, Luke, Matthew or John. Next comes dogmatics, the intangible formulation of these mysteries, and only then the theologies that ponder and interpret these mysteries as best they can.


There are certainly particular metaphysics (analogy of being, divine exemplarism, to mention those of the two doctors cited), but metaphysics is first and foremost a language. It is the language of intelligence, which formulates in the most ultimate way the mysteries we have encountered – and which remain so. If the metaphysical approach is thus universal, on the other hand, and contrary to what we may read4, there is no such thing as a universal metaphysics. It is itself for a part a matter of interpretation, and therefore of the particular, if not the singular5 What’s more, is that this most general of metaphysics, the so-called metaphysics of being, not only is declined over and over again depending on the author, but above all, as we’ve already mentioned, can itself be completed, if not replaced, by a metaphysics of relation.

Not only is there no universal metaphysics, as such, but it cannot constitute itself as such without contradicting itself6. Indeed, a metaphysics that is dogmatic or that sets itself up as a system, closed in on itself in some way, has lost its fundamental role, which is to lead from the concept to the object, of which the concept is merely the mental image. Once this role has been played, once its mission has been accomplished, all metaphysics fades away, self-abolishes.

From this point of view, we have to admit metaphysica ancilla theologiæ, just as philosophia ancilla theologiæ, since neither natural reason nor intellectual intuition are enlightened by grace or revelation, unless the intellect is pneumatized (or spiritualized), which is in no way within man’s power.

The Path of the Sacred

Let’s take a brief look at the structure of the sacred. The first distinction, still visible in modern times, is between the sacred and the profane (say, between Notre-Dame and the Eiffel Tower). Within the sacred, we distinguish the “more inward than” movement that is esotericism((Initially somewhat useful, we must abandon the opposition between exotericism and esotericism, as constituted domains, because, if this opposition has some reality in Islam (Sufism), it is far from having one universally, and not at all in Christianity. On the other hand, esotericism, as a movement to deepen or take one closer to the mysteries, with its interplay of symbols and inter-religious resonances, has its own reality – and its own place). They can be said to be “surmounted” by metaphysics, insofar as the latter arrives at a purified formulation that can even, at times and in part, show a relative unity between different religions7.

But neither the source nor the end of this sacredness should be forgotten. The source is obviously the Revelatum; without the Revelatum, what metaphysics, what subject?8

And the end, the finality, can no doubt be called gnosis, but this eventual gnosis is not metaphysics, far from it. If gnosis occurs, it’s partly because metaphysics has abolished itself to make way for it, and partly because the Spirit has been willing to bloweth. To reduce gnosis to metaphysics is to believe that one is in command of the Spirit; it is, in fine, to confuse the psychic with the spiritual, something we thought we’d be careful not to do. It’s also, quite simply, to take one’s independence from God; it’s to think one doesn’t need God.

Admittedly, the human tripartition is corpus-anima-spiritus, which reminds us if need be that intelligence is not the summit of man, yet this spiritus is not operative of and by itself, it is, by essence, receptive.

This fundamental receptivity of the spiritus has its double in the anima, especially in the distinction between reason and intelligence. Reason calculates and reasons under the dictates of logic, while intelligence is pure receptivity. It is a mirror (speculum in Latin)9, it reflects the Ideas (Plato), it is thus the sense of reality, just as sweetness only has meaning for taste (Borella). And if we understand, it’s only because we’re endowed with this receptivity10, because meaning makes sense. Put another way, we’re not great because we understand, we understand because we’re receivers.

At this level of the psyche, we certainly realize that the conceivable is surpassed by the intelligible, but also that the intelligible itself is surpassable and surpassed by the spiritual11. But it’s not only intelligence that can lead to the brink of gnosis, love can too; and here we find the particular experiences and teachings of a S. Thomas Aquinas – who could say that his entire work, however colossal and unequalled, is but strow compared to gnosis – and S. Bonaventure, following to the end the way of love of S. Francis of Assisi. And these two paths are not exclusive, but converge in Christianity, Hinduism and elsewhere.

From this point of view, metaphysics is not only not gnosis, it is not the only path to gnosis. Consequently, asserting the fundamental identity of knowing and being runs a great risk.

  • If it’s a question of absolute Being, it’s obvious that He is just as much Being, Knowledge, Love, Relationship, etc., and even Non-Being (Guénon) or Super-Being (Schuon), since He is the cause of Being, or since Being only is His sui causa affirmation;
  • If it’s a question of saying that intellectual intuition (its fundamental receptivity) is access to reality, that intelligence is the sense of being, the cause has always been understood;
  • On the other hand, if we believe that there is effective realization, i.e. the ontological identity of the known and the knowing, we are mistaken.

Sacred Knowledge

Cognitive identity should not be confused with some ontological identification of identified realities. I do not become the rose I know; there is simply a “seizure of an essence, abstracted from the thing known by the intelligence in an act of intellection”12.

If knowledge cannot unite the knowing being with the known being, this is because, “in its very act, it (intellection) is neither one nor the other”, it is that “miraculous possibility” in which the known being and the knowing being emerge from their existential situs and open up to each other in a nowhere. It is “an opening, a ‘day’, in the light of which beings and worlds can miraculously free themselves from their ontological solitude and exist for each other”.

Adamic knowledge, that of Adam before the Fall, on the other hand, is quite different: being and knowing are inseparable. His knowledge is also a mirror reflecting beings and things, but which actively ignores itself; this is “one of the meanings of ignorance (willed by God) of the ‘fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good-and-evil’, by which is meant the consequence of an actualization of duality as such, i.e. of its separative potentiality”. Here, the act of contemplation is entirely turned upwards Heaven, and any consideration of lower states is ignored.

Original sin is the desire to know infra-human (infra-paradisiac) states, in view of knowing oneself as such. Fallen man then ceases to “live up to his theomorphic nobility”, suffers his determinations and “loses the sophianic key to knowledge, which ceases to be operative”.

What remains in our world is the specular dimension of knowledge, but reduced to itself, in a purely speculative and reflective mode. All that remains for man is this “intellective, direct and intuitive memory of metaphysical principles and elements, which we call philosophia perennis”.

This ineffective – inoperative – knowledge requires ontological refocusing (“man has kept his centricity, but lost his centrality; the world is no longer concentric with him”). Only God can provide this, and the Cross, in essence, marks the right location. Man’s role is first and foremost to recognize his ontological ignorance: “intelligence must learn to close its eyes” (Saint Dionysius the Areopagite) to that which, in any case, is “beyond the eye” (Malebranche).


  1. Frithjof Schuon, De l’unité transcendante des religions, 1948, (The Transcendent Unity of Religions). An originally intended title: “De la convergence des formes traditionnelles” (On the convergence of traditional forms) would have aroused less controversy. Note that this criticism, no more than any other, takes nothing away from Schuon’s genius elsewhere, need we say?[]
  2. These three criticisms are to be read respectively in La crise du symbolisme religieux (The Crisis of Religious Symbolism & Symbolism and Reality), Guénonian Esoterism & Christian Mystery and afterword to Bruno Bérard, Introduction à une métaphysique des mystères chrétiens, in particular.[]
  3. Title of an article (Études Traditionnelles, Jan.-March 1986, pp. 25-27) and of Elie Lemoine’s book published in Paris by Éditions Traditionnelles in 1991[]
  4. For example: “metaphysics being universal (this is its most essential character)”, Elie Lemoine, op. cit., p. 43. This is Brother Élie (Adolphe Levée, 1911-1991), known as “Un moine d’Occident” (a monk from the West) or “Portarius” (the Gatekeeper), this monk from the abbey of La Trappe, famous for his Doctrine de la non-dualité (advaïta-vâda) et christianisme : jalons pour un accord doctrinal entre l’Église et le Vedânta (Dervy, 1982) (“Doctrine of non-duality (advaita-vâda) and Christianity: milestones for a doctrinal agreement between the Church and Vedânta”) in favor of ecumenism.[]
  5. As Heidegger noted, and Aristotle before him, metaphysics implies the metaphysician who thinks it (“there is no questioned without the questioner himself being included in the question”, Was ist Metaphysik? (1929), trans. Henri Corbin, Heidegger, Qu’est-ce que la métaphysique ? Nathan/HER, 2000. Man, every human being, is a “metaphysical animal,” wrote Schopenhauer, which makes for many metaphysicians who are unaware of themselves, and many potential metaphysics.[]
  6. See Bérard, “La métaphysique comme antidogmatisme et comme non-système” (“Metaphysics as antidogmatism and non-system”), Qu’est-ce que la métaphysique ? L’Harmattan, 2010[]
  7. For example, the “extinction” indicated by Buddhism’s “nirvāna” and Islam’s “al-fanā’“, concerning everything that illusorily asserts itself as real outside the only Real, since there is no God but God.[]
  8. It is the Revelatum through religion (the Scriptures, the Church and tradition in Christianity) that makes the existence of God widely known. Besides, to do without it, if everyone does, is to make it disappear for those who follow[]
  9. “Today we see by means of a mirror, in an obscure way” (1 Cor. XIII, 12).[]
  10. “We can’t force ourselves to understand what we don’t understand”, noted Simone Weil, quoted by Jean Borella, The Crisis of Religious Symbolism, p. 291 (French ed.). Moore similarly writes: “we absolutely cannot think what we can’t think”, cf. The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics: Making Sense of Things, Cambridge University Press, 2012. Or Gaston Bachelard: “understanding is an emergence of knowledge”, Le rationnalisme appliqué, Paris: PUF, 1949, p. 19, emphasis added[]
  11. “Since the greater number of truths of the supernatural order, the object of our faith, far surpass the powers of any intelligence, human reason, knowing its infirmity, must guard against claiming higher than it can” (Leo XIII, Æterni Patris).[]
  12. We follow Jean Borella, “La religio perennis n’est pas une religion”, in collective work René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, Héritages et controverses, L’Harmattan, 2023.[]