Belief: A short history for today

02 November 2006

I. B. Tauris 12.99 (1-84511-225-3); Church Times Bookshop 11.7
Shaking the grit out of the shoe: An outstanding input into the history oideas, says John Saxbee

A TOUR of religious (though mainly Christian) belief which takes in AlberRamsbottom's fateful trip to Blackpool Zoo and Mr Golightly's Holiday
She shows how the same debates recur again and again throughout historyand how an awareness of previous trips round the doctrinal track can preventhe worst excesses of extremists who believe they have found Truth for thfirst and final time
"Christianity was never meant to be complicated. It was never meant to bburdensome": so Professor Evans writes in her preface. In order to recapturthis essential simplicity, we need to understand how burdensome complexity haovertaken Christian belief, and how we can find our way to the core oChristianity by both revisiting and revising the debates of times past
After an opening chapter on the reasonableness of religious belief and thkind of evidence offered in support of it, we are provided with a wonderfullengaging guide to God. Evans recounts attempts - sometimes "extremcontrivances" - whereby Christian thinkers have sought to pin down the goodnesof God, the truth of the Trinity, and the plausibility of incarnation. Here, athroughout the book as a whole, the historical context of theological ideas ito the fore, and is portrayed with a consistently learned but light touch
Subsequent chapters take us on a tour of historical theology in rela-tioto how things came to be, how things went wrong, and how they can be set rightThe final chapters explore "landscapes of heaven", and the way in whicpersonhood has been variously understood as surviving death either as aindi-vidual or corporate experience. Options from history are clearly anattractively related, to help readers find that core belief on which to stand
The overriding emphasis is on Christian belief, and other faiths arreferred to only spasmodically.   This enables the book to fulfil thpromise of its subtitle by being short, but the title suggests some-thing morcomprehensive, and so some readers may feel cheated.   There arehowever, generic aspects of belief which can be highlighted by treatinChristianity as a test case, and this Evans does to good effect
There are some idiosyncrasies in Evans's approach - for example, thextensive use of Christmas carols to illustrate various beliefs and theologicaperspectives, and the fact that there are more references to Dorothy Sayerthan to Thomas Aquinas. Furthermore, even though it is lessons from thbiblical, classical, and medieval worlds of theological debate which Evans imost anxious for us to learn, the omission of any references at all to sucluminaries as Kierke-gaard, Rahner, Barth, and Tillich is somewhaodd.
While the likes of Hans Kng have seen new developments iChristian thought as paradigm shifts emphasising discontinuity rather thacontinuity, Evans inclines towards the persistence of ideas, so that it caalways be said of any theological treatise that "the grit of the olassumptions can still be detected in the writer's shoe.
Knowing that our questions have been asked many times before, and answerein many different ways, is vital to the fashioning of our own beliefs as wseek after our change-less God who yet makes all things new.

The Rt Revd Dr Saxbee is Bishop of Lincoln

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