Is there a hole in their buckets?
Posted: 29 Dec 2009 @ 00:00
John Saxbee considers a cumulative case for natural theology
The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology
William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, editors
Church Times Bookshop £85.50
AT JUST a fiver shy of a ton, this volume is clearly not pitched at the popular end of the market. And so it proves; for, far from journeying with a well-informed and engaging companion, as the title suggests, we are in fact eavesdropping on what feels like an interdisciplinary case conference.
The problem is that for a reader to understand, let alone engage, critically with all or even most of the contributions to this symposium, considerable levels of prior knowledge and expertise will be required in maths, physics, astronomy, logic, and the natural sciences, let alone philosophy and theology. This is a shame, because the overall enterprise is laudable and timely for all the reasons set out clearly by the editors in their introduction.
Natural theology is defined as “the practice of philosophically reflecting on the existence and nature of God independent of real or apparent divine revelation or scripture”. The resurgence in Christian philosophy in general, and natural theology in particular, is attributable to the collapse of positivism and its attendant verification principle of meaning which had rendered metaphysics suspect in respectable philosophical circles.
William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland are convinced that “theism is on the rise; atheism is on the decline. Atheism . . . is a philosophy in retreat.” This somewhat surprising and pugnacious prognosis is capped by the claim that “God is not ‘dead’ in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.”
Although this is written from an American perspective (all but one of the 13 contributors to this symposium are based in the United States), there is also some ring of truth in relation to British academia as well.
So the scene is set, and the subsequent series of substantial essays serves to confirm that natural theology is now a vibrant field of study with specialists in many different disciplines coming to the party.
First of all, Charles Taliaferro emphasises the importance of issues in the philosophy of mind for the viability of natural theology. This allows Richard Dawkins an early appearance as the current high priest of naturalism, allowing no metaphysical accounts of mind, let alone Mind. This physicalist fundamentalism is virtually dismissed as unworthy of further consideration — and Dawkins leaves the stage.
From here on, the spotlight falls on a series of classical philosophical arguments for the existence of God which do not rely on revelation for their cogency. The cosmological argument of Leibnitz is revisited by Alexander Pruss, while the kalam cosmological argument based on the finitude of the temporal series of past events is revived by William Lane Craig and James D. Sinclair. An acquaintance with quantum physics and string theory would clearly be an advantage here.
Roger Collins’s treatment of the teleological argument makes a strong case for the multiverse hypothesis, while arguments from consciousness, reason, and morality tread well-worn territory in fresh and challenging ways. Stewart Goetz’s approach to the argument from evil is especially stimulating: understanding the purpose for which persons exist provides the central insight for a viable theo-dicy.
Kai-man Kwan from Hong Kong reasserts the importance of religious experience in justifying theistic beliefs, while Robert E. Maydole offers a densely encrypted account of the ontological argument.
Finally, in a chapter on the argument from miracles, Timothy and Lydia McGrew have the temerity to expose Hulme’s critique as “shallow”, and argue that a cumulative case for the physical resurrection of Jesus is philosophically conclusive.
In fact, the overall dynamic of this Companion is to provide a cumulative case for natural theology, and this approach is always problematic. After all, ten leaky buckets ultimately hold no more water than one leaky bucket; so at least one of the arguments has to be conclusive of itself if the overall cumulative project is to be successful.
This point is contested in the book, but without a great deal of conviction. Whether any of these arguments can stand on its own
feet without being resourced to some extent by revelation remains an open question that even this high-powered case conference has not managed to answer conclusively.
Meanwhile, Alister McGrath’s “new vision for natural theology”, The Open Secret(Books, 1 August 2008), offers an intriguing way whereby Christians can use revelation to unlock the real potential of natural theology as a resurgent resource in the quest for Truth.
Dr Saxbee is the Bishop of Lincoln.
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